A report in a national magazine a couple of years ago described how customers asking a grocery shop owner in south Calcutta for Vim (a detergent bar) were likely to be given eggs — the grocer would hear deem (Bengali for ‘egg’) instead of the detergent brand name. Having run the shop for twenty years in an area under constant assault from the honking of cars, motorbikes, taxis and trucks, the shopkeeper had suffered permanent and irreversible hearing loss. He spoke far too loudly, had to keep the television volume very high and suffered from headaches and disturbed sleep.
The World Health Organization lists several harmful effects of noise: the most common is reduced hearing, which, in the case of children, interferes with cognitive development and learning. As it gets worse, loss of hearing can lead to social withdrawal, loneliness and depression. Naturally, performance, at school or at work, is affected. We can say with reasonable certainty that noise affects reading attention, problem solving and memory. Studies have also shown an association between noise, increased blood pressure, stress and, eventually, cardiovascular disease.
Other than incessant honking, Calcutta has done reasonably well in controlling noise. The Calcutta High Court cracked down on loudspeakers in the 1990s, the West Bengal Pollution Control Board did well to relocate industrial units and muzzle generators and construction crews, and the Calcutta Police, with the WBPCB, have seen moderate success in their efforts at curbing loud crackers.
But Calcutta’s dubious distinction of being among the noisiest cities in the country persists. Data collected from seven cities by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2011 show Calcutta’s average noise range to be between 55-67 decibels, with the maximum (recorded in this study) being 101 decibels — around the headquarters of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation! The average is based on data recorded over a 16-hour period, between 6am and 10pm. Thus, during waking hours for most people the level of noise is well above the average. And this is the scary bit: the numbers do not reflect a simple, linear scale. An increase from 60 to 65 decibels impacts our hearing far more than an increase from 55 to 60 decibels.
The cacophony on Calcutta’s streets is due almost entirely to its vehicular population. Over a three-year period, a street level campaign conducted by the Calcutta Police, the NGO, PUBLIC, and several schools has provided ground-level observations on this city’s honking behaviour. Some findings, while not based on a scientific survey, are worth listing.
First, everyone honks. There is no category of vehicle on the streets that can be ruled out as an active or potential noise maker. Second, the main reason why people honk is because of indisciplined behaviour on the streets: pedestrians stray, vehicles cut lanes, motorcyclists scream. And then there are those who will honk even if they do not need to. These, typically, are drivers of taxis and old Ambassador cars. Perhaps they hark back to times when cattle used to wander onto our streets and one had to keep honking as a warning. Perhaps for them constant honking is as self-gratifying as shaking their legs.
But this penchant for honking can be reduced. There has been an encouraging and striking finding: drivers do reduce honking in the face of enforcement. One traffic officer supported by 20 placard-holding school students has been found to reduce honking by as much as 60 per cent, using a crude measure of honks heard per minute. Leaflet distribution and signage on digital boards have also helped. What does not work at all are the existing “No Horn” signs. No one pays attention to them, not even the police.
Moreover, there is money to be made. In just a one-hour campaign on a 100-metre stretch of road near a hospital (a silence zone) has yielded Calcutta Police between Rs 1,500 – Rs 2,000 when the legal fine of Rs 100 was imposed on violators. Besides the revenue potential, such enforcement would contribute to making Calcutta a more walkable city, which in turn will increase its attractiveness to business.
So what can be done to tame honkers? The laws are in the books, but enforcement has been weak. The traffic police, while readily pouncing on those who violate parking and U-turn rules, will allow drivers to honk with impunity, even in declared silence zones. But the three-year pilot campaign has demonstrated that even limited enforcement of anti-honking laws produces results: reduced sound pollution, short-term financial gain to the city police through the collection of fines, and potentially long-term improvement in the learning and living environment of the city.