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After tragedy, new war on noise

New Delhi, July 18: Seven years ago a 13-year-old rape victim, whose cries for help went unheard as music blared from neighbourhood loudspeakers, had killed herself. Today, moved by the tragedy, the Supreme Court cracked the whip on all types of noise pollution and set limits for even trains and aircraft.

Chief Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justice Ashok Bhan issued detailed guidelines to give citizens respite from increasing decibels.

Many of the norms listed by the court are already in place in several parts of the country but today’s comprehensive ruling clears the air on several counts and nudges governments to take action against violators.

A key stumbling block before the fight against noise is the apathy of the state apparatus, without the co-operation of which ordinary citizens cannot be expected to address complex issues such as measuring decibel levels.

The court ordered the Centre and all states and Union territories to make necessary provisions “for seizure and confiscation” of loudspeakers, amplifiers and any such equipment “as are found to be creating noise beyond the permissible limits”.

The division bench asked the governments to notify and categorise areas for implementation of noise standards and, for the first time, brought planes and trains under the ambit of the noise pollution law.

A group of imams from some Calcutta mosques had earlier moved the apex court against a local act on the use of loudspeakers. Now, if found exceeding permissible limits, the loudspeakers could be confiscated.

The judgment came on a bunch of petitions and the court answered all categories of questions relating to noise pollution and pollutants, including loudspeakers not only at places of worship but also all public and private spaces.

Moreover, the firecracker issue was lingering for over three years. Today’s judgment banning sound-emitting crackers between 10 pm and 6 am has settled the issue.

But the petition that drew the attention of the court was the one that raised the helplessness of the 13-year-old. Her “cries for help sunk and went unheard” due to the blaring noise of music over loudspeakers in the neighbourhood, the judges said about the 1998 rape.

“The victim girl, later in the evening, set herself ablaze and died of 100 per cent burn injuries,” they added.

For aircraft and trains, the court said the government should categorise areas and zones for implementing noise standards so that low-flying military and other planes do not cross the limits while flying over “national parks, wilderness areas” and places “previously unaffected by aircraft noise and rail noise”.

The court began with the question “what is noise” and then moved on to various issues of “health hazards of unwanted sound”. It said such noises disturb work, rest, sleep and communication, damage hearing and trigger psychological and pathological reactions. “However, noises which are melodious, whether natural or man-made, cannot always be considered as factors leading to pollution,” the judges added.

The judges pointed to the “clinical manifestations of stress concomitant with noise”. They said increased activity related to ulcer formation, changes in skeletal muscle tension, subjective response irritability, increased sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure and adrenaline and changes in the heart were some of the effects of noise. Noise, they added, also affects the unborn and accounts for shaping their physique and behaviour.

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