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Fighting Noise Pollution, Mumbai Celebrates No Honking Day

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Photo by James Cridland.

In ancient Indian and Chinese texts, writers noted that the ultimate form of torture involved subjecting captives to loud and horrible noises. It’s an interesting paradox that we now live in the modern world as free citizens, and all we need to do is stroll down the street to be exposed to noise loud enough to become physically ill, elevating our blood pressure to unhealthy levels, interfering with our sleeping patterns, and causing a whole host of stress related diseases.

On the majority of roads in cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi, noise pollution can measure nearly 80-90 decibels during peak hours. That’s roughly the equivalent of standing just 15 feet from a passing freight train! Noise levels above 80 decibels are detrimental to healthy hearing and the Australian EPA suggests that prolonged exposure to noise at or above this level can cause deafness. It’s such a serious problem that researchers in the EU found that the social cost of noise pollution for that region is 0.4% of total GDP. In Indian city’s it must be a lot worse. (For normal tension free conversation one requires a background noise level less than 55 decibels.)

Although noise pollution is not widely recognized by the general public – its been dubbed, “the silent enemy” – the Indian government considers it an air pollutant, aligning itself with the World Health Organization which views it as a serious health problem. In an effort to reduce noise levels on the streets, the Indian government has prescribed a standard noise limit barrier for residential, commercial, and industrial areas, with restrictions being 55, 65 and 75 decibels respectively. But for anyone who walks down the street, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising that these limits are violated regularly during the course of day.

Yet there is still hope even as rapid motorisation in Mumbai and other Indian cities – the primary cause of noise pollution – turns pedestrians, shop keepers, and residents in their own private homes into the unwilling audience of loud and jarring noises. Mumbai, for example, celebrated No Honking Day last week, a remarkable feat that could only have been made possible by the Mumbai traffic police’s relentless efforts to enforce the ban. For average citizens – but especially traffic police and pedestrians, two groups that are routinely exposed to traffic – this was a welcome break from the noise pollution caused by cars.

Before No Honking Day many Indian’s predicted that the day would be plagued by accidents and chaos as many consider honking to be the ultimate savior against accidents and other unruly pedestrians and motorists. But the day passed uneventfully like all other days. There was just one small difference: Mumbai was a little less noisy. But only a little.