Noise pollution: a growing threat to liveability in Mumbai
Tong, who works as an educator with students across postgraduate degree programmes, says her job requires primarily reading, reviewing and writing academic material
Mumbai: On March 9, city-based environmentalist Sumaira Abdulali visited the Mahim home of Penelope Tong (52), a fieldwork supervisor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Tong, who is visually impaired and relies on a talking software to conduct her work, has recently found herself at her wit’s end owing to loud drilling and clanking sounds emanating from a private construction site adjacent to her building, located just a couple of lanes down from St. Michael’s Church.
Tong, who works as an educator with students across postgraduate degree programmes, says her job requires primarily reading, reviewing and writing academic material. Writing is also how she has been communicating online with her students since the lockdown in March 2020.
“Concentration on work becomes difficult when there is a constant loud banging in the background. Since I use an assistive technology due to my visual impairment, the noise prevents me from hearing and being able to work efficiently. Nonetheless, irrespective of my visual impairment, the continuing loud noise interrupts meetings, telephone conversations, recording, and listening to audio content,” she said.
“When I first started complaining to the builder, the site in-charge asked me to bear up for only two months more, as that is when the plinth work will get done,” said Tong. It’s been close to five months since that conversation.
After enduring the disturbance for far longer than the promised two months, Tong reached out to Abdulali, director of the Awaaz Foundation, which has spent over a decade monitoring noise levels in Mumbai and campaigning for their reduction.
“We noted a maximum decibel level of 97.3dB outside Tong’s house, which is greatly in excess of the 65dB limit prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for residential areas during the day time. This is a punishable offence, yet violations continue across the city. I am approached by people whose lives are marred by sound daily,” Abdulali said.
Existing rules around noise are governed by the Centre’s Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000, which mandate that residential and silence zones — areas around schools, hospitals and religious shrines — should have a maximum noise level of 55dB and 50dB in the day, and 45dB and 40dB at night. These rules have been almost entirely ignored by civic authorities, experts said. Prior to these (which are based on a World Health Organisation study specifying maximum safe decibel limits), there were no rules against noise at all.
In October 2015 and September 2016, the BMC mapped decibel levels at 740 locations across Greater Mumbai, and found that a majority of the locations recorded noise levels at an average of 75dB during the day and 65dB at night, irrespective of silence or residential zones. In June 2016, the civic body also allowed construction work to proceed for four more hours beyond the earlier deadline of 6pm, in the interest of “ease of doing business”.
“This was completely baffling because 2016 was such an important year in Mumbai’s anti-noise campaign,” said Abdulali. Responding to a bunch of 10 petitions, the Bombay high court in 2016 finally passed orders directing the state government and civic authorities to take steps in reducing noise pollution from multiple sources.
A court case
Abdulali’s first petition against noise pollution was filed in 2002, when she worked with the Bombay Environment Action Group. It led to the first orders being passed banning loudspeakers in Mumbai’s silence zones in 2003. Abdulali has since then filed multiple cases seeking to mitigate noise from various sources, including horns, firecrackers and construction.
Two decades on, the court is still petitioned over related issues.
Robin Jaisinghani, a resident of Dalamal Tower in Cuffe Parade, has been living with the constant din of construction on the upcoming Metro-3 line since May 2017, when the work first began. At first, he installed noise-proof windows, spending close to ₹1 lakh, but they didn’t seem to have much effect in dulling the sound.
“My daughters, 11 and 7 years old, used to fall asleep by 8pm, but construction work has been permitted at all hours of the day and they are not able to follow a uniform, healthy sleep cycle. I myself now get headaches quite frequently, which was not the case earlier,” said Jaisinghani, who works as an advocate.
When he filed a writ petition against the Mumbai Metropolitan Railway Corporation in 2018, the Bombay high court (HC) directed them not to carry out any construction work between 10pm to 6am. “But the order was modified on August 24, 2019, when the High Court permitted the MMRC and its contractors Larsen & Toubro (L&T) to carry out construction and ancillary activities also during the night at Cuffe Parade site.”
“You cannot keep the windows shut all the time,” Jaisinghani said.
Noise is a constant in urban living, but experts worry that unlike more tangible environmental pollutants like dust, sewage and waste, the impacts of noise pollution figure little in the city’s planning and development.
“Noise is dealt with largely in a personal capacity. If you can afford to, it’s relatively easy to install certain acoustic interventions in your house or car. Every second window we install for clients today is a noise-proof window. Materials that are meant to absorb sound, and which would typically be used in specialised environments like recording studios, for example, are making their way into affluent households,” says Alan Abraham, of the city-based architecture firm Abraham John Architects.
Quantifying the problem
Empirical studies have highlighted the prevalence and impact of noise pollution in Mumbai and surrounding areas. The most recent study attempting to quantitatively assess ambient (or outdoor) noise levels dates was conducted in 2020 by the y the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)- National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) across nine municipalities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, including Greater Mumbai, Bhiwandi-Nizampur, Kalyan-Dombivli, Mira-Bhayandar, Navi Mumbai, Panvel, Thane, Ulhasnagar and Vasai-Virar.
The study used 48 hours of ambient noise data from 153 sampling locations across these cities. The monitoring locations were scattered across four types of land-use classifications, namely commercial, industrial, residential and silence zones.
In 36 commercial zones, noise levels were found to range between 75 and 90 dB on average during the daytime, which is significantly in excess of the 65 dB limit set by CPCB. During the night-time, noise limits were exceeded in 27 out of 36 locations, and ranged between 70 to 80 dB, also in violation of CPCB norms.
Under the residential category, NEERI monitored a total of 48 locations, observing that “noise levels at all the residential sites are exceeding the day time noise limit of 55 dB and night time noise limit of 45 dB during weekdays and weekends, both to an enormous extent.” Noise levels at 81% of the sites were found to be in the range of 75–85 dB during weekdays as well as weekends. During night time, it was observed that on weekdays, noise levels range from 60 to 90 dB, with the majority of locations exposed to 70-75dB of ambient sound.
“But during the weekend, night time noise levels ranged from 55 to 95 dB and the majority of the locations were exposed to noise above 65 dB, especially in the broad range of 65– 80 dB. This shows that noise intensity during night times of the weekend was higher compared to weekdays,” the researchers noted.
“Our study was a simple quantitative evaluation of noise levels which gives some idea of how the levels differ diurnally. If you want to know what impact it is having on the general population, a controlled study should be carried out by public health experts. There may also be an impact of noise on birds, amphibians and other animals, which can be uncovered further through acoustic ecology. Sadly, there is a dearth of experimental studies on the subject, which are required if one is to influence policymakers,” said one of the researchers, who did not wish to be named.
Can noise harm us?
A 2020 study by an audiologist at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital examined 279 firemen in Mumbai between the ages of 45 and 60, and found that all of them suffered from a certain degree of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), either in one ear, or both. Of the cohort studied, 37.5% percent of the firemen suffered from the most common type of hearing loss, which is characterised by what professionals call the “4kHz notch”.
“In an audiogram, which is the visual representation of a hearing test, there is something we call a ‘4kHz notch’. It is a mark that sometimes appears in the graph when a person is subjected to sounds in the range of 4,000 hertz. The appearance of this is a clear indicator that the person has been subject to noise-induced hearing loss, and the phenomenon has become quite prevalent now, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago,” said Dr Hetal Marfatia, an ENT specialist based in Mumbai, at KEM Hospital.
“Even without measurable hearing loss, noise can have severe consequences for one’s quality of life, including disturbed sleep, irritability, and high levels of stress. It’s well known that these are outcomes of noise, but it’s especially hard to design studies around this because of the intangible nature of the pollutant. It’s not like conducting a health study around cigarettes, for example,” Marfatia said.
Experts warn that exposure to noise pollution above 80 decibels (dB) for eight hours a day for eight years is likely to induce permanent deafness, and that shorter exposure of higher decibel levels also damages the ear drums irreparably.
Another study from Mumbai which examines the larger consequence of noise dates back to October 2018, when researchers at the V. K. K. Menon College of Commerce and S.S. Dighe College of Science in Bhandup, and Thadomal Shahani Engineering College in Bandra, demonstrated the impact of noise pollution from trains on students living in close proximity to railway lines.
In a controlled, experimental study, noise levels were assessed near Bhandup railway station for a period of six months, during which two groups of volunteers (10 each) were selected for monitoring of sleep patterns. The experimental group lived in close proximity (1-2 km away) to Bhandup station, whereas the control group lived a considerable distance away. Researchers noted that, on average, residents living close to the station were subjected to a noise level of about 88dB every time a train entered or left Bhandup station. Noise created by honking trains —at least 250 pass by every day — was far louder, at an average of about 107.8 dB.
The two groups were then interviewed to understand the impact of noise on their daily lives. “Ninety percent of the students in the experimental group showed sleep deprivation, whereas in the control group sleep deprivation was observed only in 10% of students,” the study noted. About 70% of subjects in the experimental group also reported having high levels of stress, as against 15% in the control group. Nearly all students in the experimental group reported feeling sleepy in the daytime, as against just one student in the control group.
Treating the affected
As part of the Awaaz Foundation’s campaign against noise pollution, Abdulali said that they have conducted hearing tests for Mumbai’s traffic policemen over the years. “Most of them also suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, as would be expected. In heavy traffic locations, noise levels can surpass 100db, and unfortunately there is to no protective equipment provided to the workers,” she said.
Despite the widespread prevalence of noise as a pollutant and public health hazard, official documents, like the BMC’s development control regulations and the Mumbai Climate Action Plan, do not see noise as a pollutant.
“The BMC’s own rules were relaxed in 2016 to allow construction between 6am and 10pm, which subjects residents to 16 hours of noise each day. In case of major projects, like the Metro or Coastal Road, Courts have allowed construction work twenty-four seven,” said Abdulali.
Sanjay Pandey, Mumbai’s newly appointed police commissioner has taken a strong stand against noise pollution, allowing citizens to file complaints using a wider range of popular noise monitoring, whereas earlier only data from the official NEERI mobile app was accepted.
“I have held a meeting with Mumbai’s major developers and instructed all of them to install noise cutters by March 31. Curbing noise violations will be a priority for my office, and we will step up patrolling in construction-heavy areas. Under no circumstances will private projects be allowed to use heavy machinery beyond 10pm,” said Pandey.
The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, which is also mandated to enforce noise control measures, however, remains too resource-strapped to act efficiently. “Noise is trickier to control because unlike air pollution or water pollution, it is very hard to turn off at the source. The MPCB does have the mandate to enforce the Noise Pollution (Control and Regulation) Rules, but the offences under it are non-cognisable, and would require taking the violators to court individually. It is not something we have the resources for,” said a sub-regional officer with the MPCB based in Mumbai, seeking anonymity.
It has now been over four months since Penelope Tong’s troubles began. She still finds herself dialling 100 every few days to log a complaint with the police.