Silent Prayer

Published on: October 1, 2005

 
Is piety not possible without noise pollution?

In what is without doubt an astounding achievement, religiosity has recently made a quantum leap into the Silent Zone in most parts of Maharashtra. And few are complaining. The state shall go down in Indian history as the one that showed the way. In the matter of controlling noise pollution in the guise of faith, credit must go in equal measure to the police force and the people of Maharashtra, across boundaries of creed and community.
 

Following the Supreme Court ruling of July 18, putting a blanket ban on the use of loudspeakers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. except in cases of "public emergency", the first big test came in September during Ganeshotsav, the most important religious festival in Maharashtra. For ten days every year, this is when Mumbai and most of urban Maharashtra surrendered its streets to music (noise for many) at deafening decibels, shrill loudspeakers blaring from late afternoon until well after midnight. But this time it was different. Come 10 p.m. and in Mumbai, particularly, the sounds of Silence!
 

Parts of Pune provided an ugly exception to the rule. On the night of September 17-18, determined to defy the SC directive, activists of the Shiv Shakti Ganesh Mandal and Rameshwar Chowk Mitra Mandal provoked and clashed with the police. In neighbouring Satara, too, the police registered 41 cases of ban violation. But in most parts of the state both people and police put on an impressive show.
 

(Through a fresh order on October 3, in response to a petition from the Gujarat government and other garba enthusiasts, the Supreme Court has conceded a limited relaxation on the 10 p.m. deadline. (See accompanying piece on SC judgement and ‘Decibel democracy’ by John Dayal). This has created heartburn and resentment in some communities and a resolve in some others to approach the apex court for similar concessions. Meanwhile, all of Kerala appears to be agitated with the apex court’s verdict. But more on this later.)
 

As we go to press, it is day three of the month-long Ramzan and reports from across the state, of Muslim compliance with the apex court’s directions, are as reassuring. For most people from the Muslim-majority and communally sensitive powerloom towns of Malegaon and Bhiwandi noise – and the powerlooms emit an awful lot of it – is synonymous with bread. "It is when the looms turn silent (this mostly means no power since the looms are worked in round-the-clock shifts) that we feel strange," quips Akram Ansari, a young engineer from Bhiwandi.

In the recent matter of controlling noise pollution in the guise of faith, credit must go in equal measure to the police force and the people of Maharashtra, across boundaries of creed and community

Yet Akram from Bhiwandi and journalist Halim Siddiqui from Malegaon vouch for the fact that there is not a single mosque where the morning (fajir) azan is now called on loudspeakers. In fact, it was not just azan; during Ramzan loudspeakers were also used for special taraweeh prayers at night and sehri time announcements sometimes an hour before the morning azan. In a city like Bhiwandi, to suit the convenience of the devout some mosques even hold the taraweeh prayers in two shifts. Akram finds it more convenient to attend the second. "It lasts beyond the 10 p.m. deadline but the masjid authorities have installed a sound system to ensure that no sound spills outside the mosque," says Akram.
 

When contacted, people from Navi Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Satara and Sangli all told CC that it is the same story everywhere: Muslims have agreed to respect the 10 p.m.- 6 a.m. ban across the state. "It seems to be the same story everywhere. People are amazed at this welcome dawn of silence. To be honest, even I am amazed," gushes an exultant Sumera Abdul Ali, who is among the handful of individuals in Mumbai to have consistently championed the control of noise pollution in recent years.


Mumbai could perhaps lay claim to having played a special role in combating noise pollution in the country. Septuagenarian Dr. YT Oke is widely respected as a pioneer in the field, one who was sold to the cause in the mid-’80s after a newspaper published the findings of a German agency on the harmful effects of excessive noise.
 

Again, the Supreme Court’s July judgement came in response to a petition filed by Anil Mittal, an engineer from Mumbai who petitioned the apex court after reading news reports of a shocking incident in Delhi in 1998. A 13-year-old girl, whose screams for rescue from rapists went unheard because of loudspeakers blaring in the neighbourhood, committed suicide.
 

Seventy-year-old HS D’Lima’s fight against unbridled noise pollution in the name of religion, in the course of which he was even subjected to grievous assault some years ago, inspired a documentary on noise pollution, "Is God Deaf?" Over the last two decades intense communalisation of society has acted as an additional hurdle in the battle to control noise pollution. Says Sudhir Badami, another prominent Mumbai-based activist in the campaign against noise pollution, "Hindus would goad us: ‘Why don’t you first ask Muslims to stop using loudspeakers in mosques?’ My answer always was, ‘We need to begin somewhere. Why don’t we start with ourselves, the rest will follow.’ Now that the Supreme Court verdict has been implemented on the ground, no one can complain."
 

While the battle has gone on for years, the ease and speed with which Ganesh bhakts on the one hand and Maharashtra’s Muslims on the other agreed to abide by the apex court’s fiat made it seem like some sort of magic was at work. "No, there’s no magic involved," says Sumera Abdul Ali, "The seven years that it has taken the Supreme Court to deliver its judgement have been useful, as people have gradually gotten used to the idea that a curb was inevitable. More importantly, the way the police handled the issue reassured people from different communities that the restrictions were for everyone, that there was no unfairness involved."
 

Anyone who has ever witnessed the sea of humanity on Ganesh Visarjan would comprehend that actually enforcing the SC deadline was no easy task. But Mumbai’s joint commissioner of police (law and order), Arup Patnaik, makes no tall claims about the role played by the police. "No law or directive can be effectively implemented without the support of the general public. There was and is a general public mandate against noise after a certain hour," Patnaik told CC (See box).
 

Siddiqui from Malegaon readily corroborates Patnaik’s claims. "Leave alone others, more and more Muslims were getting irritated with the way loudspeakers on mosques were being used indiscriminately late into the night and in the early hours of the morning for one thing or another." The same could be said of non-stop bhajans from every roadside mandir. Significantly, the initiative to comply with the SC’s directive in Malegaon was led by none less than Maulana Mufti Mohammed Ismail of the town’s Jumma Masjid.


Sadly, the reign of relative peace in Maharashtra has run into a new hurdle thanks to the short-sightedness of both the government of Maharashtra and the highest court in the land. On the eve of Ganeshotsav, the Maharashtra government appealed to the Supreme Court, praying for a relaxation in the 10 p.m. deadline for the visarjan. No matter how disappointed, millions of Ganesh bhakts in Maharashtra complied with the court order, and Muslims throughout the state stopped using the loudspeaker for morning azans, only to find that the apex court had granted a special concession to Gujaratis for Navratri garba. That may not be the exact truth of the matter but that is how it seems on the surface and this is something that communal forces are sure to exploit.
 

So the Raza Academy is once again thinking of appealing to the Supreme Court for a special concession to Muslims for those months of the year when the pre-sunrise morning prayer has to be held before 6 a.m. Meanwhile, in an obvious show of defiance, in Pune’s Karve Nagar loudspeakers blared till well past 11 p.m. on October 7 and the provocation resumed at 4.30 a.m. the next day. "There was talk by some leaders in Pune even earlier that while there will be no relaxation for Ganeshotsav, garba will be treated differently. Now they can say their bhavishyavani has come true," says Anwar Rajan, Pune-based vice-president of Yuva Kranti Dal.
 

As discontent now brews in parts of Maharashtra, what about the rest of India? "The Supreme Court’s judgement has been well received by the ulema, so in Delhi you can already see a big difference," says Kamal Faruqui, spokesman of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Two years ago, the Darul Uloom, Deoband, had appealed to Indian Muslims to lower the volume of their loudspeakers as consideration to their non-Muslim neighbours.
 

In Hyderabad, however, it seems to be business as usual. "There appeared to be some self-imposed restraint during the Ganesh Chaturthi procession, but even now azans from loudspeakers mounted on mosques continue unchecked," says Jameela Nishat of the Hyderabad-based NGO, Shaheen. In Bangalore, "if the ban on loudspeakers has come into effect in scattered parts of the city it is only because of the action initiated by some concerned citizens. Both the city police and the heads of religious places are not only oblivious to the ban, they are also impervious about implementing it," adds Gauri Lankesh, editor of Kannada weekly magazine, Lankesh.
 

"There is hardly any hope of the Supreme Court order on the use of loud speakers during the Navratri celebration being enforced in Madhya Pradesh," reports LS Hardenia, a prominent secular activist from Bhopal. According to him, it would be difficult for the police to impose any restraint on Hindutva activists in a state under saffron sway. Besides, during Ramzan it would be also be no easy task for the police to impose the 10 p.m.- 6 a.m. ban on use of loudspeakers mounted on mosques.
 

With states like MP, Andhra and Karnataka showing little enthusiasm in implementing the Supreme Court directive, with Navratri revellers basking in the glory of the concession wrested from the Supreme Court, with virtually all of Kerala up in arms against the apex court’s ruling (see accompanying story), with resentment against perceived discrimination in parts of Maharashtra, will the dawn of silence in one part of India prove to be short-lived?
 

Dolphy D’souza, national vice-president, All India Catholic Union and president, Bombay Catholic Sabha, is all in support of the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. ban on loudspeakers. Since the Maharashtra government resolution in 2003, the church authorities’ directive to the parishes not to break the law were very clear and this was scrupulously followed for the last two years, says D’souza. Among those very pleasantly surprised by the fact that Ganesh bhakts and Muslims, too, complied with the court direction, he now wonders what the implications would be, now that Pandora’s Box has been reopened and a relaxation conceded for the Navratri festival.
 

How the Supreme Court retrieves the situation and how it goes about enforcing its will across the country remains to be seen.

Story Box
 

Noise: Nuisance and health hazard 

  • Although a soft rhythmic sound in the form of music and dance stimulates brain activities, removes boredom and fatigue, its excessiveness may prove detrimental to living things.
  • Effects of noise depend upon sound’s pitch, its frequency and time pattern and length of exposure.
  • Noise is more than just a nuisance. It constitutes a real and present danger to people’s health. Day and night, at home, at work and at play, noise can produce serious physical and psychological stress.
  • Not only might there be harmful consequences to health during the state of alertness, but research also suggests effects may occur when the body is unaware or asleep.
  • Researches have proved that a loud noise during peak marketing hours creates tiredness, irritation and impairs brain activities so as to reduce thinking and working abilities.
  • Hearing loss: it can be either temporary or permanent.
  • Noise can change the state of alertness of an individual and may increase or decrease efficiency.
  • In studies abroad, noise has been related to general illness, neuropsychological disturbances (headaches, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, neuroticism), cardiovascular system disturbances (hypertension, hypotension, cardiac disease), digestive disorders - Ulcers, colitis; endocrine and biochemical disorders.
  • The foetus is not fully protected from noise.

Sound: Safe and unsafe

Sound less than 80 db – normal conversation, sounds emanating from music systems or an orchestra – is safe for the ears.

Constant hearing of sound greater than 80 db – heavy traffic, very loud music – causes temporary hearing loss and if they are not treated immediately, causes permanent impairment.

Higher noise level of 160 db – sounds of aircraft engines, for examplecauses total deafness, rupturing eardrums, damaging inner ear. It also causes high blood pressure, ulcers in stomach, palpitation, nervous problems, irritation, anger, and affects pregnant women’s embryos.

Noise Pollution: What you can do

For information on noise pollution, including government regulations and court judgements, and what you can do to help control it, visit the website,

http://personal.vsnl.com/aspirations


"There is a general public mandate  against noise after a certain hour"

Arup Patnaik
Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order), Mumbai

No police force can effectively implement any aspect of the law or any judicial directive without the public, by and large, accepting it. If the people feel that it goes against them, they take to the streets. Any political or legal mandate is effective, or not, depending on widespread acceptance of what it stands for.

For a decision of this kind that the Supreme Court delivered on the eve of the festive season, a police force needs to win the psychological and emotional support of the people. No law or directive can be effectively implemented without the support of the general public. There was and is a general public mandate against noise after a certain hour. It is not simply the concern of a handful but of the wider section that is concerned about the elderly, about young persons who have to study and give examinations… by and large people get irritated with noise and disturbance after 10, 10.30 p.m.

Sensing this, the Mumbai police approached the whole issue very judiciously. There appeared to be unanimity that the verdict/directives must be implemented and we conducted a series of meetings with groups and organisations, Ganpati mandaps and other religious groups. We were clear that we wanted cooperation from them and that we would not use any force. We also made it clear that the directive was not a police decision and under no circumstances should we use force. This was our approach. There was the odd Ganpati mandap and procession that chose to be defiant but these were minor incidents. We had also decided that in case of violation of the SC directive we would file a few cases and pursue them but all with an aim to convince the defaulter of full cooperation the next time round.

By the way, the SC gave little time to prepare, little time for implementation or negotiation. Some aspects of the verdict, including one that enjoins us to record decibel levels with a decibel metre amid a crowd of thousands (this to be done by an officer not lower than the rank of deputy superintendent of police) are impractical and we told the court so. We were also aware of the statutory discretion available to us under the Noise Pollution Control Act and Rules and had internally decided to use this discretionary power if necessary.

In a sense we were caught between the devil and the deep sea but fortunately passed the test. What all authorities need to remember is that we live in a multi-racial, multi-religious society and what applies to one must apply to the other. Now that some discretion has been subsequently granted by the SC, other groups will also approach the court for similar relief.

There are also some fundamental issues that this directive raises. In Punjab we have the tradition of lori in rural areas; a practice that has been going on for hundreds of years… in many of our villages we have village jatras that also have long traditions and involve the entire village community. While such a verdict is important in large urban conglomerates like Mumbai and Delhi, it will have different implications in rural India. These are long-term aspects that need to be decided when we look at this issue. We must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater…

(As told to Teesta Setalvad).