Sumaira Abdulali: Raising Decibel Levels Against Noise Pollution

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Residents of India’s business and commercial capital have for decades been used to high levels of noise in the metropolis. — File photo

INTERVIEW

A bold anti-noise activist, she has been struggling for years to tackle the soaring noise levels in Mumbai and other cities in Maharashtra. Thankfully, her efforts are paying handsome dividends, as an increasing number of people, especially the young, realise the dangers of noise pollution

Ashok Kumar | Clarion India

MUMBAI – Residents of India’s business and commercial capital have for decades been used to high levels of noise in the metropolis. While the four-month monsoon season (between June and September) sees a lot of thunder and lightening, the following four-month period (better known as the festive season) witnesses explosive noise that can rattle the nerves of most people and shatter the hearing sense of the young and the old.

With the festive season setting in once again, millions of residents are hoping that the government would strictly implement the policy of low-key celebrations during the Covid crisis. But more importantly, many would want the urban noise levels, which can soar to as high as 120 decibels (dB) during the Diwali festival, to be curbed to reasonable levels forever. To compare the peak noise levels in Mumbai during Diwali, it would be interesting to realise that a whisper is about 30 dB, normal conversation 60 dB, and a running motorcycle 95 dB. According to doctors and activists, noise above 70 dB over a prolonged period could damage hearing. And loud noise above 120 dB can cause immediate harm to the ears.

Mumbai’s most active anti-noise activist Sumaira Abdulali spoke to Clarion India on the forthcoming noisy months in Mumbai and elsewhere in India.

One of Mumbai’s most active anti-noise activist is Sumaira Abdulali, who has over the past few decades been raising a lot of ‘noise’ in government offices and courts to curb this menace, which can have a terrible impact on human lives. The courts fortunately respond well to her pleas and have over the years imposed stiff curbs and tightened the norms and rules, sadly violated blatantly by tens of thousands of people celebrating a wide range of festivals. Ms Abdulali gave an interview to Clarion India on the forthcoming noisy months in Mumbai and elsewhere in India. Excerpts:

Could you take us down your long journey to battle noise pollution? What triggered off this interest in you against noise?

I started working against noise pollution in Mumbai in 2002 when my uncle Saad Ali asked for assistance to control noise from a wedding hall near his house. He was a pioneering noise pollution activist and had been a member of the Bombay High Court appointed committee on noise pollution and had given his inputs to the Noise Pollution Rules 2000.

In 2003, I filed litigation in the Bombay High Court after we discovered the problems in implementing the rules, soon after the government diluted them by allowing loudspeakers at night for 15 days a year. But it was after the court first ordered that loudspeakers couldn’t be used in any Silence Zone that I started receiving calls from people telling me about their traumatic experiences with noise. I visited some of them and witnessed an infant having convulsions, a woman having a psychotic fit and heard many emotional stories on the phone of the severe mental health and other health consequences of excessive noise.  I empathised with these stories and became committed to the cause of reducing noise pollution in whatever way I could. I began to generate data of actual decibel levels using a simple handheld decibel meter which was donated to me by one of the suffering complainants.

In the nearly two decades since then, my noise data has been used in court cases influencing national and state policies and verified by the Pollution Control Board. The campaign has widened to include noise from loudspeakers and firecrackers at festivals, political rallies, religious places and private functions, road traffic, railway, aircraft and construction sites. It has turned into a public movement in which thousands of people across Mumbai and other NGOs in different cities of India have participated to bring about long-lasting policy and systemic changes to implement the Noise Rules. Of course, there have been challenges and reverses too, as when the government denotified all Silence Zones in the country after the Bombay High Court passed orders to implement the Noise Rules. But participation of a large number of people nevertheless ensured that the festival season in Mumbai and Maharashtra became quieter over the last several years with the cooperation of all those involved in organising them across all religions – the Ganpati Mandal associations, the Eid e Milad procession organisers and of course, the police.

Have you always lived in Mumbai? And which area did you live – in a quiet part of the metro, or a noisy one?

I was born and have lived in Mumbai and Kihim (where we have ancestral property) for most of my life, except for a few years in my childhood when I lived in Japan with my parents. I live in a relatively quiet part of the city and so do not face the worst effects of noise pollution directly. We spent many of our holidays and weekends in my childhood in natural areas and places. Kihim (a small village near Alibag in Maharashtra), where I spent many of my childhood holidays was a wonderful place for birdwatching and to enjoy the sounds and scents of nature. In Japan too we lived near a river and a mountain.

Who influenced your decision to start the anti-noise movement? Your uncle Saad Ali was a pioneering anti-noise activist and even your grandparents were involved in the freedom movement, women’s emancipation and environmental challenges even in those days.

I grew up hearing stories of my ancestors, although I never believed I would take any of those paths myself. Salim Ali (the famous ornithologist) lived quite close to me and he died in my house. I had many opportunities to meet him when I walked back from school while he was birdwatching. My uncle Humayun Abdulali (who later became my father in law), the ornithologist who was responsible to carve out and recommend notification of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai also inspired me, as of course did Saad Ali. He was jailed during the freedom struggle. Many women in my family have been inspirational too including my great grandmother Sakina Lukmani, who was also jailed during the freedom struggle. I consider her, along with my mother Rabia Futehally, an early Indian woman pilot, my role models.

Have you ever faced any physical threats or attacks during your long career in the anti-noise and anti-illegal mining campaigns you had launched? Do you interact with political leaders face-to-face and discuss these issues?

Although I have met political leaders a few times, mostly at public functions, I avoid face to face political interactions.  I have faced verbal and physical threats during my work against noise and against illegal sand mining. In 2004, I was physically attacked by the sand mafia at Kihim beach and in 2010 I was attacked again in Mahad (also in Maharashtra). An FIR for attempted murder was filed against the attackers. I was gheraoed while taking noise readings at Mahim fair in Mumbai in 2018 and have been subjected to intimidating verbal abuse on numerous occasions. However, all of these attacks have served to strengthen my determination to continue with these issues as they have highlighted for me the importance of the issues themselves.

Were there times when you felt frustrated and wanted to give up all these activities because of lack of support from the government and other bodies, corporates, political parties and NGOs?

Of course, there have been times when I was tempted to give up. Notably, in 2017, when the Government suddenly and unexpectedly denotified all Silence Zones in the whole country because of court orders which required them to implement their own anti-Noise Pollution Rules. However, their action, while it took away all our Silence Zones which need special protection from noise, had a reaction when it became clear that many people supported enforcement of the Rules. The festival seasons in the years after 2017 have become progressively quieter and, with the cooperation of all festival organisers, 2019 and 2020 have been the quietest festival seasons in recorded history.

What are your other hobbies and interests?

My other hobbies are reading, walking, classical music and natural history. I enjoy travelling, especially to natural areas and forests.

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