The Zai Whitaker column | When the music's to die for; or the challenge of the decibel
We have an enlightened law about noise pollution — The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 — but it's a struggle to convince individuals to keep within the stipulated decibel levels and timings for using electric sound-enhancers.
It must have been 1970-ish and a college friend had come to stay with us in Kihim, our family’s holiday home on the coast south of Bombay. We’d been on the beach all day, getting various degrees of sun-stroke; hers was the worst and she lay on the bed with a high fever as my mother hovered around with an ineffective ice poultice. The local doctor was consulted. “Tela zhop chi garaj ahe; She just needs to sleep,” was his advice. But this simple cure was impossible, because there was a wedding going on in the next village.
Since we’re in India, I need not explain that statement. We all know about noise levels at marriages and other functions; the challenge of the decibel or, as a wannabe wit put it, the Desi Bell. Internet sites are bursting with information about the medical effects of high-decibel noise, ranging from the “chest slam” and irregular heart-beat, to death. In February 2020, a bridegroom in Telangana died of a presumed heart attack during his own wedding festivities and it was reported that “the high decibel sound of the music played during ‘baraat’ might have triggered the cardiac problem”.
Beats me how and why, but some families feel that the decibel level of an “event”— the new word for loud function or celebration — is a measure of their status. The louder the better, so bring on the woofers and subwoofers. We have an enlightened law about noise pollution — The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000 — but hotel staff struggle to convince their customers to keep within the stipulated decibel levels and timings for using electric sound-enhancers. The entitled attitude is “We’ve paid, so we should decide how loud, and till when.” Many of the resorts on the East Coast Road of Chennai face this problem; and hosting “events” is often a significant part of their income so the show must go on.
(And what about the other customers, those poor guests staying at the hotel, having paid through the nose for a peaceful holiday at the beach? Well, over the last couple of years three sets of friends and their families have been hounded — sounded? — out of beach resorts and had to shift to hotels in the city because it was impossible to sleep or relax as deafening “music” and pounding vibrations trashed the air, ground, and their biological cycles. Lovely irony: having to move into the city to get some peace and quiet and a decent night’s sleep!)
Dog-owners are witness to the acute suffering of their pets during firework displays. Two wonderful dogs I knew, fled from home when neighbours began their Diwali fireworks — negotiating a garden gate, barbed wire, heavy traffic — never to be seen again. But again, there’s no need to get into detail here; just Google “Effects of firecrackers on dogs” and you’ll find a heart-slamming number of articles, including advice from vets on how to medicate /tranquilise your pets during fireworks displays.
It’s not just about dogs and other pets. Noise-related stress can harm, and kill, wildlife in parks and zoos as well…even the supposedly hardy crocodiles. Analysis of crocodile blood in control and stressed groups seems to show a higher incidence of disease and infection in stressed animals. At the Croc Bank we are concerned about this, because our zoo collection includes valuable and endangered reptile species. And the danger is very real. In 1989, blasting at a construction site 2 km from a crocodile farm in South Africa caused the death of 26 Nile crocodiles. And in a study of the eastern blue-tongued lizard, individuals displayed more “freezing” behaviour, a sign of chronic stress, when exposed to high decibel noise.
But to control noise levels one has to accurately gauge the stress levels caused by noise. How does one do this? Vets in many countries, including our own zoo vet Dr Ruchika Lakshmanan, are working on this. In reptiles, corticosterone is the main hormone linked to stress-responses. Dr Ruchika and her team have collected relevant data, references and publications on this aspect of husbandry but are waiting for the standardised protocol for laying the parameters for monitoring so that we can achieve conclusive results. Samples are being collected and analysed, and hopefully we will soon have the necessary kits for the procedure.
But to return to firecrackers for a minute, there’s also the trash, mountains of it, which we abandon on the street as an additional goody for civic sweepers. And the many tragic accidents: “17 hurt as firecracker hits crowd at Kerala temple”; etc etc, ad nauseum. Not to mention the chemicals, metal particles and toxins they release, many of which never fully disintegrate and find their way into the soil and water aquifers. The smoke stays in the air for hours, even days, harmful to all and deadly for respiratory conditions…such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It is telling indeed that the government hasn’t been able to stop their use even during this lung-blasting epidemic.
There was some momentary — or should I say secondary — excitement last year about “green” crackers, with less noise and pollution but their manufacture, distribution and enforcement is still a grey (not green) area. Around Diwali time in 2019, a quick survey of firecracker shops in our area showed no knowledge of these. While the Noise Pollution Rules mandate a maximum of 55 DB, and noise at 85 DB can cause hearing loss in humans, firecrackers routinely exceed 140 DB. Again, our increasing national deafness is there on the ’net for all to read and be shocked by. Deliberately-caused loud noise has no place in today’s society, with so much medical science out there about its dangerous effects.
“What can we individuals do, to help the planet?” is a common question from visitors to the Croc Bank and to our online programmes; we are all especially engaged with this question because of the pandemic and its environmental ramifications. Well, there is much that we can do, many changes we can make. Some of these are very doable, and would make a significant difference. Such as, for instance, ensuring legally mandated decibel compliance in our family/institutional events and functions. Not easy, because there is always pressure to turn up the music, and include firecrackers, and be as noisy as possible. But in two recent cases, a funeral and a wedding, the family stood up against this, and kept it low. What better Karma can there be for a newly married couple who decides to support Mother Earth in this way?
There are other flashes of hope too, such as the efforts of organisations like Aawaaz, which monitors noise levels and informs citizens and officials about the results, and the harm that it does. In Delhi, a noise monitoring committee has been constituted under the leadership of a retired High Court judge. But why go as far as Delhi? Our own local community in Vadannemeli village, across the road from the Croc Bank, has shown that people can make changes in cultural habits to support the environment. About a hundred citizens recently signed a commitment pledge to reduce noise levels in the village and avoid using firecrackers during functions and funerals. Good for them! The news was music to my ears (around 35 decibels). And hotels and resorts on the East Coast Road will hopefully do the same. It may actually up, rather than down, their income because more and more people want to engage with businesses that go beyond lip service to conservation.
Certainly, we are meeting more such families and professional groups these days at the Croc Bank. Now that gives me a really good chest-slam (of the healthy kind). Because there are so many good folks out there, and yes, we can do this. So, the next time a sibling/cousin/friend/ is getting married — or you yourself — do a good deed for the environment and keep the noise within legal bounds. The animals and birds in the environment, domestic and wild, will love you for it, and shower blessings on the couple, guests, and on you. And we can all do with an extra blessing or two.
If you don’t think this is a good idea, give your head a wobble and think again. It’s a three-time good-whammy: happies up the environment, its birds and animals, and last not least, you.
Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology. Read more of her columns for Firstpost here.
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