Sound controls

Azan, jagran on speakers shines a spotlight on Indian sound culture. A look at the laws that govern our “noisy” daily lives.

In India, sound defines culture. A wedding is a noisy affair, from the arrival of the groom’s baraat, a procession whose main purpose is to make noise to the heartbreaking vidaai to the notes of shehnai, and the dozens of rituals in between where music is indispensable. The roads demonstrate the average Indian’s penchant for honking – it can be done to greet, admonish, alert or simply clear the way, whether one is in a hurry or not. The din of the market is a familiar experience, with vendors shouting their wares in a stream of twisted words. Even in restaurants and social gatherings, ambient music and patrons compete to be heard over each other. Sometimes loudspeakers play movie music out of nowhere on an odd day. And then there are endless construction noises seeping into the houses. Not to mention religious events and processions, where using microphones to amplify sounds to reach the heavens has become commonplace.

We are a noisy people, it is established, but modern devices sharpen the noise we make to add to the cacophony of our daily lives.

The campaign against Azan

Right-wing groups have long targeted the Azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, to relay it over loudspeakers. Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray took on the mantle of Hindutva to protest Azaan over loudspeakers, saying his party would play Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeakers outside mosques. In an ultimatum, he asked the Maharashtra government to remove loudspeakers outside mosques by May 3.

singers like Sonu Nigam and Anuradha Paudwal supported the anti-Azaan on the loudspeaker cause. Many critics of the practice point out that such a custom is not followed in Islamic countries.

In the latest escalation of the Azaan controversy, the radical group People’s Front of India warned of the consequences if “someone dares to touch the speakers” outside mosques. An FIR has been registered against Mumbra PFI Chairman Matin Shekhani for making an open threat.

Still, it’s safe to say that the Azaan is singled out in a culture where so many sounds thrive regardless of rules on decibel levels. And even the noise laws that exist need teeth and enforcement.

Everyday sounds

Sound is measured in decibels (dB). The US Environmental Protection Agency considers a decibel level of 70 to be safe, but exposure to anything louder than that for 24 hours can cause harm. Here’s a quick look at the decibel levels of common sounds we encounter in our daily lives – the sound of firecrackers ranges from 140-165 dB, a personal listening device at maximum volume sounds at 105 dB, heavy city traffic or a cafeteria is 85 dB, a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner makes a noise of 70 dB, humans have a normal conversation at 60 dB, a whisper at 30 dB. Zero dB is the quietest sound that anyone with normal hearing can detect.

Regulator noise pollution

Noise pollution seems to be the less harmful cousin of air and water pollution, but it affects our well-being. Noise is a stressor and being exposed to it for an extended period harms us physically and psychologically. Noise can cause mental disorders, irritability, depression and stress, in addition to hearing loss.

The National Ambient Noise Monitoring Network established in 2011 has set up 70 noise monitoring stations in seven cities including Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Lucknow and Mumbai. 90% of those stations reported noise levels well above the allowable limit, according to a Down To Earth report.

Motor vehicles, air conditioners, refrigerators, diesel generators and certain types of construction equipment must meet the decibel levels prescribed by the Environmental Protection Rules 1986.

There are fines for violations ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 1 lakh including confiscation of noise producing equipment. Industrial noise pollution is dealt with strictly and is regulated by national pollution control commissions or pollution control committees.

But noise in our daily lives is a cultural issue. The authorities, if they have the will, can start by banning loudspeakers for prayers (for all religious communities), weddings and religious processions on public roads. Awareness campaigns on billboards can also go a long way in raising awareness of the standards that exist and the importance of reducing noise.