India has a right to noise

Excerpt from ‘More light, less sound: On firecrackers and a festival of light’, an editorial in The Hindu on November 7, 2023:

The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules 2000 stipulate that firecrackers cannot be burst in ‘silence zones’, designated by State governments, and anywhere after 10 p.m. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (i.e., ‘daytime’) and in industrial areas, firecracker noise cannot exceed 75 dB(A) Leq. The thresholds in commercial and residential areas are 65 dB(A) Leq and 55 dB(A) Leq, respectively. … Traffic noise has burgeoned in cities where haphazard development has forced motorists to overuse horns. Many religious occasions have become synonymous with noisy celebrations irrespective of the hour. … If, say, people burst firecrackers at 90 dB for 10 seconds and the ambient noise is 50 dB for 50 seconds, and this pattern continues for four hours followed by 12 hours of 50 dB noise, the 16-hour Leq is 74.5 dB – which merits a complaint in residential areas but not in commercial ones, yet the noise is already harmful. Different loudness zones are also seldom publicly demarcated while some places are both residential and commercial.

India has a big noise pollution problem, and firecrackers add to it in a bad way because the Noise Pollution Rules 2000 and improper urban zoning have together created a regulatory sieve through which firecracker noise can pass through without any consequences – except damage to human (and animal) health.

To the issues highlighted in the editorial, I’d like to add one that complicates both enforcement and judicial disputes: the argument that asking people to not combust firecrackers violates their right to religion. The national and state governments in India have kept the door open to this assertion by refusing to ban loud firecrackers altogether, instead creating allegedly ‘green’ alternatives that also produce less noise: around 120 dB instead of around 150 dB, which is laughable because the healthy threshold is somewhere around 40 dB!

On November 3, Justice Amit Rawal of the Kerala high court directed authorities to seize “illegally stored” firecrackers in temples across the state and ensure temples didn’t combust firecrackers at “odd time”. He added: “prima facie there is no commandment in any of the holy books to burst crackers for pleasing the god”. But today, November 7, a division bench set aside a part of the order to effectively reassert the terms set out in the Noise Pollution Rules 2000.

Before this, the state government had submitted, according to On Manorama, “that there are several religious festivals in the State wherein display of fireworks is an essential part of religions, which have been carried out since time immemorial”.

It’s unfortunate that we wield the right to religion maximally, to the expense of all other rights, and stop only when it’s confronted by an apparently implicit order of rights in the Indian Constitution. For example, by refusing to ban (noise) polluting firecrackers altogether, and by making the Rules so complicated, neither collecting nor easing public access to noise data, and slipshod urban planning (an oxymoron, really), India’s governments often leave the right to religion in conflict with the right to life. In the Constitution, however, the latter takes precedence.

In early 2021, for example, the Madras high court was hearing a case about allowing the Srirangam Temple authorities to conduct their rituals in full rather than in an abridged form due to limitations imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The court observed that the right to religion was superseded by the right to life, so if the rituals had to be abridged for the sake of public health, they wouldn’t violate the right to religion. 

The Telegraph also reported that the court “alluded to the Calcutta High Court’s earlier order to regulate crowds during Durga Puja for the same reason. It may be recalled here that the Supreme Court had ordered restrictions for Ratha Yatra in Odisha too.” I think courts have made similar observations vis-à-vis Deepavali firecrackers as well as the winter-time pollution in North India.

The right to life is predicated on threats to individuals’ well-being, which in turn is rooted in – among other things – where scientists are able to draw the line between good health and ill-health. For example, India’s permissible thresholds are higher than those of the WHO for different atmospheric pollutants. Biologically, people can (and often do) fall ill when the limits cross the WHO’s thresholds – but legally, we must wait for them to cross thresholds encoded in the relevant Act before we can claim injustice.

Similarly, loud noises are harmful beyond 50 dB itself (depending on the level and mode of exposure), but the Rules’ thresholds are even higher. In fact, they may well be out of reach: India also has too few noise monitors for its size, which means even after scientists draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ noise levels, we may not know whether the place we’re located in has crossed over.

And so we go, round and round…