Indian cities are amongst the noisiest in the world. And all that noise is proving dangerous – causing permanent hearing loss, and health complications, from heart conditions to diabetes.
Last Wednesday, No Horn Day was marked in cities across India, raising awareness of the impacts of noise.
Jasvinder Sehgal brings us this story from one very noisy street corner in Jaipur, India.
It’s morning peak hour at Tonk Road, one of the busiest roads in the Indian city of Jaipur. Cars, scooters, motorcycles, and tuk tuks battle to overtake each other in the morning rush. The air is engulfed with the sounds of hundreds of horns relentlessly honking.
Students hold signs that read, “For God’s sake stop honking”, “No Horn Day” and ‘Uncle, can you drive without honking?” When the traffic lights turn red, they make their way to waiting drivers and hand out stickers saying ‘No Horn.’
14-year-old Mainisha Gupta has good reason to dislike the sound of honking horns. She says they’re often used to harass women. "Many young men blow their horn for no real reason,” she reveals. “There are others who use them to tease and irritate girls.”
At the corner, Dr. Surinder Kala, an ear specialist, is explaining the dangers of noise pollution. "Noise pollution and honking can cause not only permanent deafness, but also major diseases like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease,” he states.
It’s not uncommon for young Indian drivers to take the mufflers out of their cars, and modify their horns, making their cars louder, and in their opinion, cooler. Many Indians feel honking is an essential part of driving, like 35 year old Mahinder Singh, a lorry driver.
"When I’m driving, I’m never sure if another vehicle will jump in my way from another direction,” says Singh. “We don’t have an effective lane system, so drivers are always coming into each other’s lane. If you don’t honk there’s a good chance you’ll be hit by another vehicle. Honking is essential to prevent deaths on the roads.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a safe level of city noise is 45 decibels. But Indian cities are usually twice as loud as that, at an average of at least 90 decibels. Continuous exposure to noise at this level causes hearing loss and irreversible nervous system damage.
15-year-old student Kiran Sharma tells me she has personal reasons for joining No Horn Day. Last year, Kiran’s sister lost her hearing due to noise damage. "My sister really liked loud music. Whenever she used headphones, they were turned up high,” Kiran explained. “She always turned up the volume on our television until it was really loud. While driving she would continuously honk. Now doctors have given her hearing machine to help her. Today, she is not able to hear properly, her hearing has been terribly affected.”
In an attempt to limit noise pollution, The Noise Regulation Rules were introduced in 2000. The rules ban loud speakers between 10pm and 6am, and regulate noise levels in the city, including establishing zones of silence around schools, courts and hospitals.
But Prateek Kasliwal, an advocate with the No Honk campaign, says that these laws aren’t enforced, and so the problem persists. "There are fines up to $800US, and penalties of up to three month imprisonment, but unfortunately people are not being fined according to the law,” Kasliwal said.
Honking horns aren’t the only problem. There’s also the constant din of industry, trains, planes and firecrackers filling the air. When I stop for a tea at a stall on the opposite corner of this busy intersection, the music is blaring at full volume.
And sounds are also an integral part of religious culture in India. All places of worship are fitted with powerful loudspeakers. When famous Hindu singer Sonu Nigam recently took to twitter to complain about the loud call to prayer from a nearby mosque at dawn, he provoked uproar.
The reaction suggests that some of the sounds of India’s cities are set to stay for a while yet.