Piety and Noise Pollution, The Face Off - India 2005

First Published on Octber 1, 2005

Lost opportunity?

For the young girl from the capital, New Delhi, whose cries to be rescued from rapists were drowned in a neighbourhood inundated with the noise of blaring loudspeakers and who committed suicide in bleak despair years ago, some form of justice has been delivered, if  terribly late. The Supreme Court of India’s verdict in July this year directing that silence must reign in public spaces between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. had squarely addressed one of the major burdens of  urban Indian life. A disregard for civic discipline generally accentuated in recent decades by an aggressive display of competitive religiosity on the streets has given rise to the cry for silence. The fierce religion-based competitiveness that reduced even the noise pollution discourse to "our garba, Ganeshotsav" versus "their azan" has vitiated the social climate even further. Hence CC’s cover for this month complimenting Maharashtra for showing the way, barring a few exceptions, while many other states have shown scant regard for implementing the apex court’s verdict. Kerala has in fact expressed outrage at what its literati and intelligentsia consider to be yet another anti-people judgement.

Within weeks of this long overdue verdict, however, came the inevitable roadblock. Reminding the apex court of the discretionary powers state governments have under the amended Noise Pollution Control Rules, 2002 the Gujarat government won extra hours for the nine nights (navratri) of garba-raas celebrations. On October 3, the court modified its earlier order, recognising the still-in-force permission allowing state governments to relax the night-time ban on loudspeakers and public address systems for two hours (10 p.m. to midnight) for a maximum of 15 days in a calendar year. Maharashtra fouled up its legal plea as a result of which Ganeshotsav – all 10 days of it – passed in relative silence, and the early morning azan from loudspeakers in mosques has stopped, even during this month of Ramzan. Did Gujarat win and Maharashtra lose?

Therein lies the rub. In a country yet to awaken to the harmful consequences of noise pollution, forceful legal arguments and strong judicial direction is only part of the solution. Enforcing the court orders successfully is a tricky business in a social milieu where unprincipled political parties and religious organisations in their many avatars wait for every opportunity to demonstrate their aggressive and noisy presence on the streets. This aspect appears to have been ignored by the apex court.

With the festive season (beginning with Ganeshotsav) just a few weeks away, it behoved the apex court, instead of simply delivering its verdict, to call for reasoned arguments from all players in the arena who would be affected by this judgement, be it those who create the din or the police of all states who must now curb it. For instance, state-level police chiefs could have been asked about the measures that needed to be in place for effective implementation of the order. Such advice, stemming from long years of hands-on experience, would have been by and large responsible and measured; where not, it would stand exposed. Instead, what we now have is a "hung society" where a state like Maharashtra stands out as the exception in terms of implementation. In Kerala there is open outrage, in Karnataka disregard, in Madhya Pradesh near scorn. All this adds up to an unsatisfactory beginning for the belated steps necessary to control noise pollution. The Supreme Court order therefore stands in real danger of failing through wilful non-implementation.

Apart from the cover, in CC’s current issue we also examine the implications of another Supreme Court verdict that allows privately funded educational institutions an escape clause from affirmative action and social justice. The attitude of our courts in equating education with a business enterprise for profit, as opposed to a social enterprise for empowerment, is in stark contrast to even advanced capitalist countries like the USA where court after court, through verdict after verdict, has paved the way for civil rights movements. The debate is likely to heat up further in the months to come with the UPA government’s pending bill on free and compulsory education waiting to be brought to the Indian Parliament.

The massacre of Dalits in Gohana, the consistent harassment and intimidation of activists from a statewide network of Muslim women in Tamil Nadu, the hypocrisy of the regime in Saudi Arabia and the tragic tale of continuing racial discrimination in the USA that stands fully exposed in the wake of the natural disaster that befell New Orleans, make up the rest of this issue. We look forward to your comments and suggestions.

– Editors
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