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Silence of the loud/speakers…
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Silence of the loud/speakers…

K Ramanujam

Pic Courtesy: Croc Bank/Twitter

As Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, raises questions following the death of a critically endangered Cuban crocodile reportedly due to loud music from a hotel nearby; the question we probably must ask ourselves is if we are only shedding crocodile tears over the issue of noise pollution in our country. Read on… 

One thing to be said in favour of loud speakers (animate variety) is that they are easier tackled than inanimate loudspeakers. At least, there is a blog guru offering help – for a price, of course, as premium content – on how to handle toxic loud speakers at the workplace.

Loudspeakers are a lot more intractable. I am often riveted by the stern announcements belted out by Traffic officers through public address systems fitted to police jeeps cruising in stately style, inadvertently blocking traffic on either direction. Edicts, both cautionary and advisory in nature, laced with decorous epithets directed at disorderly pedestrians, motorcyclists, hawkers, and most importantly autorickshaw drivers, flow copiously, conveyed in stentorian voices that could be the envy of the SS goons guarding Auschwitz concentration camps.

An aural spectacle that has delighted me for three years is centered around Pongal. As I took a walk along the beach a few years back, I heard blaring announcements, ostensibly sponsored by police, directed at the masses assembled for Kaanum Pongal festivities, exhorting them to guard against pickpockets and incidentally calling upon them to buy XY koottu perungayam (Compound Asafoetida); Name changed lest this turns out to be an advertisement for the product! They were declared to be ‘announcements made by the asafoetida company for Chennai city police for the benefit of public’ advising people to take care of their children and possessions and cautioning lovers who have rendezvoused at the beach to maintain dignity and not transgress limits, after which it was reiterated that XY koottu perungayam is the best perungayam in Tamil Nadu.

These announcements were pouring out of horn type speakers tied to every other lamp post all along the beach. Though the public proclamations were as tasteful and healthy as XY Koottu perungayam, they were too loud, violative of the Supreme Court orders on noise pollution. At any rate, I was sure that police should not be seen as endorsing the product. I felt compelled to take it to the kind notice of the Commissioner of Police, who swore that he would put an end to it next year.

The Commissioner who made this solemn promise had been transferred by the next Pongal, so once again XY Kootu Perungayam was peppering the air with its messianic message.

The newly installed Commissioner was informed and action next year was guaranteed. But again next year, XY’s aural aroma filled the beach air at Kaanum Pongal.

I realized that the blame lay solely on me because every year I was waking up only after the loudspeakers had been tied. Wiser now, the next time around, I called up the concerned well in advance. XY and the horns were vanquished for once. The Kanum Pongal crowds were left unmolested by noise pollution.

I have not been keeping track in subsequent years and cannot say whether XY was trounced just once – not once and for all.

One hot summer night in May 2016, the area where I live was drowned in loud instrumental music played over loudspeakers, starting around 10 pm and going on till 2 am. This was part of an annual religious procession that wends its way over about 2 km. My guess is that the noise was well over 125 decibel.

Having retired from police by then, I decided to do what any ordinary citizen could do. I rang up the City Control Room at about 1 am but the noise continued unabated, with fireworks soon joining the merriment. The police could not have been ignorant as the procession passed right in front of the police station.

As I was now in the Information Commission, I tried to use this as a learning experience on filing RTI petitions. I submitted an application under RTI affixing court fee stamp worth Rs 10 asking for a copy of the application received for use of loudspeakers, copy of the licence granted for the use of loudspeakers, copy of FIR or petty case register about action taken against the those who hired out loudspeakers to be played after 10 pm and a copy of extract of any law which allows seizure of loudspeakers for violating licence conditions. I referred to the Supreme Court judgment on noise pollution and also pointed out that there were some hospitals and clinics on the way or in the vicinity of the procession.

On the 30th day, the Public Information Officer appeared in my office and handed over a reply along with relevant documents. The reply made it clear that no application had been submitted for permission for use of loudspeakers, and no licence had been granted. Interestingly, a gratuitous piece of information was given by means of a copy of the licence granted by the Commissioner for the procession itself. It stipulated that the procession should conclude by 11 pm and also said in bold letters “without mike, without music band, without fire crackers, etc.” There were 12 conditions listed out below the permission order and they said no loudspeaker shall be used and no announcement should be made over the public address system and that no musical instruments should be played.

It was also stated that petty cases under Section 71(A) of the Chennai City Police Act had been registered and loudspeakers had been seized. I was also given a copy of the extract of the relevant section under which the violator was liable to be fined a grand sum of Rs 500 or undergo 3 months imprisonment. The law also authorized seizure of loudspeakers and empowered the magistrate to order their confiscation.

The officers were profusely apologetic and assured this would not recur. Since some action had been taken, I did not want to escalate this. Come next year, the drama was replayed. When I asked, the concerned officer (unconcerned about those tormented by aural aggression, as the Supreme Court put it) he was at pains to explain that in fact he had visited the spot before the start of the procession, contacted the organizers and extracted a promise from them that they would desist from use of loud music. Then he had gone home to a place far enough that he would not hear even a faint whisper of the racket that enveloped the cursed residents in the route of the procession.

It was a religious procession and this possibly created a hesitation against interfering while a big crowd was on the march. But I wondered why the action against the band company and the seizure of the loudspeakers had not acted as a deterrent.

Looking back at the papers, I realize that they had only seized 4 cone speakers. Even 400 such speakers could not have produced that kind of noise that rent the air. They had apparently used very powerful and expensive amplifier systems of the kind used at auditoria for huge gatherings. Seizure of 4 cone speakers and a fine of Rs 500 would have been a flea bite. And there is no proof that confiscation of the speakers was pressed for or that the “petty” case reached is logical conclusion.

The establishment, a public enterprise, has its task cut out when confronted by established practices of private initiative. Officers come and go while XY koottu perungayam and the band company go on, with at best a light slap on the wrist, free to continue the depredations against the environment.

The courts have been battling the menace much longer.

The famous 37-page judgment dated 18th July 2005 of the Supreme titled “In Re: Noise Pollution Restricting use of loudspeakers” is a scholarly treatise. Starting with the definition of noise, it went on to catalogue the health hazards of noise and to make a comparative study of relevant legislation in different countries before coming out with a set of directions. Not many may be aware that this case was started as a petition filed by Anil K. Mittal who sought strict enforcement of the laws against noise pollution, in the wake of a tragic incident in 1998 in which a 13-year old rape victim’s cries for help were drowned in the blaring loudspeaker music in the neighbourhood. Overcome by a sense of shame, the girl set herself ablaze in the evening and died. The directions included a ban on bursting of crackers between 10 pm and 6 am; stipulation that the noise level at the boundary of the public place, where loudspeaker or public address system is being used shall not exceed 10 dB(A) above the ambient noise standards for the area or 75 dB(A) whichever is lower. The judgment also prohibited use any sound amplifier at night (between 10.p.m. and 6.a.m.) except in public emergencies. The Court further directed States to make a provision for seizure and confiscation of loudspeakers, amplifiers and such other equipment as are found to be creating noise beyond the permissible limits.

The focus has recently turned to a ban on cone speakers. In May 2016, the papers reported a High Court order: “Govt. directed to enforce ban on cone speakers by June 21.” Six months later, the same papers reported: “G.O banning cone type speakers in a fortnight.”. There is no further report in the media or in the government website about issue of the G.O though papers have reported that the Madras High Court has directed the State Public Secretary to issue a circular instructing all Collectors and their subordinate officials to ensure that the ban on cone speakers was enforced. Many news reports and even some court orders have cited this judgment to say that apex court has banned the use of cone speakers. However, the judgment does not specifically touch upon cone speakers though in the discussion, there is a reference to the Appa Rao, M.S. v. Govt. of T.N case in which the Madras High had issued a writ of mandamus in 1995 for directing “Director-General, Police (Law and Order) to impose total ban on use of horn type loudspeakers and amplifiers”. It is not clear under what provision the DGP could have banned and whether any such ban in fact ensued.

Justice Potter Stewart of the US Supreme Court declined to delve into the complexities in the definition of the word “obscenity”, and instead stuck to his instinct, saying, “I know it when I see it.” Our Supreme Court eschewed such a laid back approach to this critical question of the definition of noise and has quoted from Encyclopaedia Britannica and a dictionary, apart from tracing the etymology of the word to the Latin word ‘nausea’.

The Supreme Court judgment devotes at least 15 pages spread over two chapters to the subject of fireworks. There is an elaborate discussion on whether the chemical make-up of the product or its ultimate impact should be the deciding factor. This is presumably because organizations like Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association, All India Federation of Fireworks Association and Indian Fireworks Manufacturers impleaded themselves and put up a strong case pleading that that any regulatory mechanism should not be to the detriment of the industry. As the loudspeaker industry could not put up an equally vociferous defence, the discussion on loudspeakers did not really go into intricacies cone speakers, horn type speakers, box type speakers and any other type that may be there.

Although I have no expertise on the mechanics of loudspeakers, I understand that every loudspeaker has a cone inside. Presumably, the aversion is towards horn type speakers which belt out louder noise. During an election, when the observers appointed by the Election Commission of India insisted that only box type speakers should be used, our innovative politicians simply put the horns inside a box.

Essentially, the shape should not be so critical as the noise impact of devices used. No doctor is going to say avoid cone ice-cream and consume cup ice-cream instead. The Supreme Court has already laid down the permissible noise level in terms of decibels, and a ban on loudspeakers in public during nights. This coupled with restriction on the power input may be a better measure than any ban based on shape of the loudspeaker.

The measly fine of Rs 500 is hardly a deterrent; although it is coupled with the prospect of a 3 month imprisonment, it is highly doubtful that anyone has ever been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment.

Creation of awareness about the evils of noise pollution as well as the laws on the matter are important, as the Supreme Court itself has emphasized. Still, this awareness is lacking. In one case a Court ordered “the condition regarding time restriction is modified so as to enable the petitioner to conduct the festival up to 1 a.m. on the next day and the petitioner is permitted to use only speaker boxes instead of using cone speakers, so that there may not be any noise pollution in night hours.” In a different case, the Court observed that similar permission had been granted to another writ petitioner because the Supreme Court orders on restriction of time had not been brought to the notice of the court. Evidently, the government counsels were not aware of the orders.

Interestingly, it is religious institutions and organizers of religious festivals that have been speaking out loud in favour of loudspeakers, although Courts have pointed out that religion is not a trade requiring advertisement by amplifiers – one presumes, like koottu perungayam

The author is former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu and former State Chief Information Commissioner, Tamil Nadu