By directing the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to prepare plans to curb noise pollution across the country, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has initiated the long-delayed combat against a critical pollutant that has till now received scant attention. Like environmental pollution, noise pollution, too, is the outcome of human activities — industrialisation, urbanisation and modern lifestyle. But the awareness about its perils is wanting. Prolonged exposure to any sound louder than 80 decibels, even if it is music, can impair hearing, breathing and thinking processes besides affecting overall human health and productivity. Noise beyond 120 decibels can cause biochemical changes in human bodies, raising cholesterol and blood pressure with the attendant health risks. The hearing loss due to excessive noise is reckoned by the World Health Organisation to cost $750 million to the global economy every year. Factories, airports, railway stations and busy roads usually have noise levels much above the safe standards. Indiscriminate honking with pressure horns, excessively loud music systems in cars, homes, dance bars and other public joints and the use of loudspeakers at full volume at religious, social and political gatherings worsen this menace.
While air and water pollution have, thankfully, begun to receive attention and even some corrective action, noise pollution remains unaddressed by and large. The NGT has, therefore, done well to ask the CPCB to categorise cities on the basis on their noise profile, identify the noisy hotspots and propose remedial plans within three months. It has also called upon police departments in all states to procure sound monitoring devices and assist the pollution control authorities in their efforts to mitigate noise pollution. Legal provisions to prosecute the noisemakers already exist. Section 2 (a) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, includes noise in the definition of pollutants. Noise pollution control rules, framed way back in 2000 under the amended and updated Environment Protection Act, 1996, went to the extent of specifying ambient standards for different places in respect of permissible din. Unfortunately, these have remained only on paper. Though noise monitoring mechanisms were established in a few cities, these were hardly ever put to any gainful use by way of follow-up action.
Given the diversity of noise pollution, only multifaceted, yet situation-specific, strategies that include measures ranging from awareness creation to punitive action can work. One way to tackle this menace, as indicated by the NGT, is to bind the manufacturers of public address systems and sound amplification equipment to provide inbuilt noise meters and data loggers in their products. This would help regulators — the pollution control bodies or the police — to establish violation and fix responsibility. Another approach could be on the lines of what is sought to be tried out in Thiruvananthapuram. It makes prior permission obligatory for setting up public sound systems and bars placement of loudspeakers beyond 300 metres from the venues of religious, social or political events. Religious bodies, in particular, would need to be sensitised about the ill-effects of the loud sound to get them to change the noise-generating customs. The youth, who face the greatest risk of irretrievable hearing damage from personal music systems, also need to be targeted specifically for this purpose. Most importantly, pollution control bodies need to treat noise pollution on par with other kinds of pollution.