Sumaira Abdulali fights to lower noise levels in Mumbai, India’s capital of noise

October 3, 2013
Mumbai, India is home to the annual 10-day Ganesh festival, which is arguably one of the loudest religious ceremonies in the country. (The Washington Post)

On a recent afternoon, tens of thousands of Hindu devotees beat drums, clanged cymbals and chanted as they toted idols of the elephant-headed god Ganesh through the streets. Behind them trudged a slight but determined woman lugging an orange-and-gray gadget.

It was the Minister of Noise.

“This is too loud,” complained Sumaira Abdulali, reading from the gadget — a noise meter — and shaking her head. The racket had registered 123 decibels. India’s noise rules permit a maximum of 55 decibels. “This can cause serious damage to health if you are exposed to it all day.”

Abdulali, 52, an activist, has waged a decade-long campaign against noise in a country defined by it — religious music blares, construction workers pound day and night, and drivers blow horns constantly. Last year, the German carmaker Audi introduced cars with extra-loud horns made especially for the Indian market.

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Heavy traffic is one of the highest causes of noise pollution in Mumbai, as seen here outside Bandra train station. (Photo by Karen Dias/For The Washington Post) See and hear more of the sounds of India.

Now, after years as a lonely crusader, Abdulali has finally begun to gain traction. Neighborhood groups, police and even the city authorities have started to join forces with her. Their interest reflects the rise of a more developed, ever noisier India and an aspiring middle class that is demanding some peace and quiet.

While wealthier Indians are sponsoring increasingly louder religious events, “more and more of us also want a city with quieter neighborhoods, a higher quality of life, and where laws are followed,” said Anandini Thakoor, 83, a Mumbai resident.

Abdulali was inspired to become a noise crusader because of her uncle, who was doing policy research in Mumbai on noise pollution. She was a full-time mother when she began volunteering with him in 2002. He died shortly after, and Abdulali took up his mantle.

“Noise is not about religion or celebration. It is a serious health issue, and people in this city need to recognize they are already in the red,” Abdulali said.


Local musicians play the drums on a street in the district of Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. (Karen Dias/For The Washington Post)

Her uncle’s research helped lead the government to pass rules in 2000 limiting noise. But the measures are rarely enforced. Abdulali realized the urgency of the issue when she was flooded with calls from Mumbai’s residents after her phone number was printed in a newspaper article about her work. “My phone number became the noise hot line,” she said.

Abdulali has waged a David-vs.-Goliath battle in India’s noisiest city, taking on powerful violators such as temples, mosques, cultural festivals, political parties and wedding crowds. In 2006, she created the Awaaz Foundation to support the effort.

When Abdulali launched her campaign, she said, she encountered widespread opposition. She has been called a party-buster, anti-Hindu and the Minister of Noise.

“The police said there will be riotous opposition if they stopped noise at religious festivals and places of worship,” Abdulali recalled. “Some reminded me that there are more urgent problems like poverty and malnutrition. Others said that the increasing city noise was a sign of development and growth and the clock cannot be turned back. I was accused of destroying Mumbai’s cultural fabric.”

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Musicians play the drums as part of an immersion procession during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Worli Naka, Mumbai. (Karen Dias/For The Washington Post) See and hear more of the sounds of India.

But she has won several public-interest court cases against noise violators, and an increasing number of Indian officials have come to agree with her.

Abdulali’s campaign comes at a time of intensifying contrasts in India.

“These noisy festivals are getting louder every year, and it is because people want to show off their new wealth by saying they can now afford to buy large, ornate idols, hire a DJ, loudspeakers, drummers, mount screens and invite celebrities,” Thakoor said.

And yet, there is also a desire for safer, quieter neighborhoods. Thakoor complained to the police last week about the nonstop noise outside the hospital in which her 84-year-old husband was recovering from surgery.

Defying the odds

Abdulali has taken her fight to the well-known Shivaji Park, which is in a residential area and is known for hosting large political meetings. She has squatted in the park recording noise levels at rallies for three years even as the politicians on stage mocked her as “that noise lady sitting there.”

Abdulali’s critics say that with 12 million people packed into Mumbai and 1.8 million vehicles jamming the streets, noise is inevitable.

“In a congested city like Mumbai, it is impractical to insist on low noise levels,” said Anil Parab, a member of the state legislative council from the Shiv Sena party. “Where will poor people go to hear their politicians? If everybody goes to court against noise from festivals, from public meetings, weddings, from traffic, then Mumbai will come to a stop.”

Even the richest man in India has not escaped Abdulali’s crusade. Billionaire businessman Mukesh Ambani built a 27-floor, $2 billion home in Mumbai that features three rooftop helipads. But Abdulali and residents in Ambani’s neighborhood opposed the helipads because of the noise the choppers would generate. After some court and state government hearings, at which Abdulali testified, authorities refused him permission to use the helipads.

During Abdulali’s first high-profile conference on traffic noise, in 2006, the Mumbai traffic commissioner called the issue “a waste of time,” she recalled.

But some years ago, in part because of Abdulali’s lobbying efforts, the city’s traffic department urged drivers to observe a “no honking day” — a tall order in a country where beeping is an integral part of driving etiquette.

Not everyone obeyed, but residents at least got a taste of a quieter city, one volunteer said.


A truck with a 'BLOW OK HORN' sign passes by on a street in Dadar, Mumbai. (Karen Dias/For The Washington Post)

Heavy traffic is a common sight outside Bandra train station in Mumbai. (Karen Dias/For The Washington Post)

A ‘noise map’

Abdulali asked Mumbai residents in August to download a free app called “Noise Watch” to their smartphones and upload their noise readings. In just two weeks, 261 residents contributed to a “citizens’ noise map” dividing Mumbai into green, orange and several very bad red zones.

Inspired by their efforts, the city said last month that it will conduct a scientific study to develop a noise map of the city.

“We hope that when people are faced with a scientifically developed noise map and hard data, people of this city will be forced to think about their behavior,” said U.P.S. Madan, commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority.

Abdulali’s impact was visible at the recent religious festival to honor the birthday of Lord Ganesh, in which huge crowds carried idols to be immersed into the Arabian Sea.

Abdulali was not the only one with a noise meter this time. Two police officers were standing not far from the beach, measuring noise levels on their devices as the festival built to its ear-splitting midnight climax.

“This is the first time we are recording noise,” police constable Madhukar Sarpad said. “Nobody paid attention to such things before. Our city is changing.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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