Kids set off firecrackers in Mumbai during Diwali, the festival of light. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The most celebratory months tend to be the loudest.

Sumaira Abdulali measures decibel levels around Mumbai year-round, carrying her meter to rallies and festivals. Her insistence on noise control measures has prompted a government officer to call her the Minister of Noise.  

Some months are louder than others. In September, India’s festival season begins in earnest. Throughout Ganesh Chaturti, idols of Lord Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, are installed in homes and neighborhood mandals (temporary booths with large installations of the idol) across India. For 10 days, the elephant-headed god is worshipped with offerings of food, milk, and flowers before being taken in a procession to be immersed in a body of water. This season of celebration continues until Holi, the festival of spring and color, in March.

It’s almost six months of celebrations, decorations, and firecrackers. There’s a lot of fun. There’s also a lot of noise.

Abdulali’s Awaaz Foundation is especially busy now, as her Gods Against Noise campaign is aimed at curbing noise during the festive season. Abdulali has been a crusader against noise pollution in Mumbai since 1995. She was instrumental in loudspeakers being banned in Mumbai between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and also in the creation of “silence zones” of 100 meters around schools, hospitals, and religious institutions, among other places.

The Gods Against Noise campaign is a watchdog, especially on guard during the loud festival season. Sumaira Abdulali carries a decibel meter with her. (Sumaira Abdulali/Awaaz Foundation)

The noise at festivals like Ganesh Chaturti or Diwali routinely crosses 100 decibels, nearly double the permissable maximum of 55 dB—the sound of normal conversation—in residential areas. Multiple loudspeakers blaring amplified Bollywood hits or devotional songs are commonplace around the idols of Ganesh. Firecrackers after prayers or during processions up the noise level, potentially disorienting and upsetting children, the elderly, and pets. Mumbai has around 1,300 official mandals that have received permission from the state government and several more that haven’t gotten permission or didn’t apply.

In 2005, the Supreme Court of India banned the use of loudspeakers after 10 p.m. This guideline, however, is relaxed for fifteen days of the year including specific festivals and holidays; Abdulali says that the “silence zones” are often disregarded during this time, too, even though local courts have recently reiterated the rules.

“Our fight against noise is a health issue,” says Abdulali. “There’s a lot of awareness about blindness, for example, but not much about hearing loss and how it affects us.” Prolonged exposure to noise, she says, is linked to both short-term and long-term problems, ranging from impaired sleep to cardiovascular disease.

Abdulali is a big believer in the power of data. She collects information about decibel levels and offenders through social media. “People can use any noise-measuring app to record decibel levels and then send us the data to our Facebook page, where we will collate it on a Citizen’s Noise Map,” she says.

Though Abdulali says she’s rarely felt unsafe during her work on noise pollution, she’s received threats and intimidation tactics in response to other activism around illegal sand mining. That inspired her to form MITRA (Movement Against Intimidation, Threat, and Revenge Against Activists), a network of NGOs to protect people involved in grassroots activism. With noise pollution, though, spectators “are often curious about what I am doing and are interested in knowing more,” she says. “This has been consistent over the years: people are willing to listen to you.”

People have apparently been listening to Abdulali’s pleas to turn down the noise. Abdulali’s data indicates that noise levels have indeed dropped in the last six years, and at one festival, she recorded a 117 dB, down from a previous high of more than 125 dB. Social media is also playing an important role, as people share articles about noise pollution’s negative effects and use hashtags such as #HornFlu. Around Diwali, many campaigns promote the festivity as one of light, not sound.

Abdulali’s efforts have also resulted in the government of Maharashtra banning the use of the “Horn OK Please” signage on the rear of trucks and buses across the state, on the grounds that it encourages unnecessary honking. She also received unexpected support from the Mumbai police, who helped organize a No-Honking Day in August.

Encouraging people to celebrate more quietly is an uphill task, but progress is heartening. “It’s becoming apparent that noise is a serious health hazard,” Abdulali says. And she hopes that Mumbai is on the road to recovery.

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