People gheraoed (surrounded) me and hurled abuses; some were even banging on the windows of my car. This incident occurred very close to the police station and in the presence of a policeman who was escorting me.
Sumaira Abdulali, an anti-noise pollution activist, is no stranger to threats, and the above incident, which took place in 2018, during the 10-day Mahim Fair in Mumbai, is just one among the several unpleasant encounters she has had over the years.
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However, she has found a way to work around such intimidating behaviour and continues to hold noise metres during festivals, public gatherings and places where there is loud noise.
Besides sending an alert to the police authorities, Sumaira, along with her volunteers, also tries to make the citizens aware of the issue by showing them the metre readings.
Today, if a Mumbaikar can pick up their phone and dial 100 to complain about noise pollution, it is largely thanks to Sumaira’s efforts of integrating such complaints in the phone number that is meant for emergency services.
Born and raised in Mumbai, Sumaira hails from a family of freedom fighters. Her great grandmother was jailed during the freedom struggle and it was her granduncle who led the Salt Satyagraha after Mahatma Gandhi was arrested.
Her mission to establish safe permissible limits for noise across India started when she joined her uncle Saad Ali, the then Chairman of Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG), who was leading a cause against loud noise.
Back then, in the early 2000s, increasing noise levels were not even considered a problem; in fact, there was no means to measure noise pollution. No one paid attention to the songs playing on loudspeakers during festivals or firecrackers that would cross the permissible limits or realised the health and mental health implications of doing this.
It took her nearly three years to identify and collect data on noise pollution levels across the city, whose population was growing by the day.
Sumaira filed her first PIL in 2003 along with BEAG, seeking more information on the implementation of noise pollution rules in Mumbai, as well as comprehensive data on noise levels.
A year later, the court banned loudspeakers in silence zones or areas within 100 metres of court, hospitals, educational institutions and places of worship. And today, over 2,000 areas in the city have been declared a silent zone.
Sumaira was flooded with calls from across the country post the court order. Some congratulated her; some cried, expressing their gratitude and some raised voices against similar noise problems that existed in their areas.
In 2006, she registered ‘Awaaz Foundation,’ her public trust, to file PILs, and deal with mundane paperwork and court visits in a more structured way.
From ordinary citizens, activists to lawyers, Sumaira’s family grew in numbers, and soon the citizen-led campaign spread in places like Varanasi, Bengaluru and Pune.
Another breakthrough for the Awaaz Foundation came in 2007 when Sumaira filed a petition to keep a check on noise from horns, vehicular traffic, construction activities and firecrackers and for noise mapping in Mumbai.
The case went on for almost a decade, and in 2016, after hearing several litigations, the HC passed orders to control noise and directed the state government to conduct a state-wide noise mapping study.
A strict rule of not bursting crackers post 10 PM during Diwali in 2016, which was one of the rules laid down by the HC, even witnessed a reduction in noise levels by 10 decibels.
Other significant milestones by the Foundation include the first No Horn Day that was observed in Mumbai, 2008.
Additionally, a campaign against private helipads in Mumbai by Sumaira and other citizen groups led to a ban on private helipads on residential buildings of Mumbai.
There are several effective laws on controlling noise pollution, but due to lack of awareness and implementation, people continue to suffer from non-stop honking and during festivals. However, we have witnessed some positive changes as well, when people and the authorities have cooperated with us. For instance, last year, Ganapati pandals had voluntarily banned DJs.
Currently, Sumaira is working with the CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and MPCB to map noise levels in 27 cities of the state. Post the data collection, sites with high noise levels will be identified, and steps to mitigate the noise will be taken accordingly.
Despite the victories recorded since 2002 and the government corporation, the activist believes a lot needs to be done in terms of noise pollution.
Unless the citizens take a firm stand and observe the rules diligently and the government introduces better monitoring mechanisms, the problem is going to persist.
Apart from this, the Awaaz Foundation is also actively working against ending illegal construction sand mining, marine pollution and oil spills and tree conservation.
It is not an easy task to draw people’s attention to an issue that has rarely been acknowledged, and fight groups that justify loud noise in the name of festivals or traditions.
This is why Sumaira’s journey is not only inspirational but also courageous.
All the images are sourced from: Sumaira Abdulali/Facebook
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)