On an occasional afternoon, the sounds of North Delhi evoke a city from another time – the chatter of birds and neighbours, the cries of street vendors and hawkers – not just the sabziwalas and kabadiwalas, but others whose voices are slowly disappearing from our soundscape – knife sharpeners, jewelry menders and charpai weavers.
These moments are rare however. In Delhi, as in all our cities, we are assaulted by the sounds of loudspeakers, construction work, the ringing of the now-ubiquitous mobile phones and above all, the incessant traffic accompanied by relentless honking. In 2017, a Worldwide Hearing Index ranked Delhi as the second-noisiest city in the world (the first being Guangzhou), followed by Cairo and Mumbai.
In October last year, the Delhi police declared sixty stretches of road as “no honking zones.” It is clear that the measure is little more than lip service to tackling the acute problem of noise pollution in the city. In addition to the negligible fine of Rs 100, there is a paucity of equipment to measure the decibel levels of offenders, with only 15 noise meters for the entire city.
The order has met with the same fate as the Supreme Court’s restrictions on bursting firecrackers this Diwali, another ruling meant to tackle noise and air pollution. It is clear that no amount of lobbying by activist groups or regulations from above can solve a crisis that is as serious as that of air pollution.
Authorities, residents equally to blame
A lack of administrative will is matched by an absolute disinclination on the part of city dwellers to modify their consumerist lifestyles, wherein long-term consequences are tossed aside for immediate gratification. Hand-in-glove with the local authorities and the police, construction rules, traffic regulations and restrictions on the use of loudspeakers are regularly flouted.
This attitude is costing us dearly. Numerous studies have revealed that the effects of noise pollution are more devastating than in its impact on hearing alone – it has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, anxiety and depression, as well as behavioural and developmental issues in children. The din on the roads has also been repeatedly linked to irritation, anger and the increasingly ubiquitous problem of road rage.
Nor are human beings the only sufferers – recent research has pointed to the negative impact of noise pollution on animal behaviour; a paper in the journal Frontiers of Zoology suggests that excessive urban noise leads to rapid ageing and shorter lifespans of bird populations.
Earlier in 2018, the WHO released a report, Environmental Noise Guidelines for the European Region, with recommendations that starkly exposes the extent of the crisis in Indian cities. It suggests, for instance, that traffic noise be kept under 53 decibels to prevent adverse health effects; a 2011 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) states that the ITO intersection in central Delhi experiences noise levels going up to 106 decibels.
The people most vulnerable to noise pollution are those whose livelihoods and lives are played out on the streets – traffic policemen, automobile drivers, roadside shopkeepers and hawkers, as well as the homeless. Auto-drivers at my local stand told me that migraines and hearing loss were common problems amongst them. Indeed, the 2017 worldwide index study mentioned above says that that residents of Delhi have the maximum amount of hearing loss proportionate to their age.
It is also clear that the poor suffer inordinately from the callous indifference of the wealthy. A resident of Malikpur goan, an urban village in North Delhi adjoining the affluent colony of Model Town, working as domestic help spoke of her everyday struggles with the endless cacophony in her neighbourhood.
She pointed out that her home, located near a major arterial road, could not keep out the sounds of all-night honking by impatient car owners or drown the noise of loudspeakers from nearby pandals, whose periodic festivities now all sound the same. As a consequence, lack of sleep left her tired all the time. She felt powerless to do anything about the noise levels.
Losses go beyond mental and physical health
As serious as they are, the losses incurred because of noise pollution go beyond our mental and physical health. Historians of early modern Europe have argued that city-dwellers in the past did not merely hear dissimilar sounds from those of today’s world, but also that these had different meanings. Sound formed a semiotic system that conveyed messages, news and information, that allowed people to understand the world around them.
Even without going back to the distant past, it is obvious that urban life in India has slipped away from ways of being, cultural sensibilities linked to sound, whether in the call of a vendor or the distinctive aural character of religious or cultural events, or birdsong.
These allowed neighbourhoods to be intimate and particular, and for cities to be distinctive. The uniqueness of cities has dissolved as their sonic landscapes have become homogeneous. Our urban dwellers however, seem largely unconcerned as they callously flout measures to curb the din. As city sounds disappear, and we are left with noise, the silence around this issue is deafening.
Aparna Balachandran teaches modern history at the University of Delhi.