Gods Against Noise is a campaign first started by Awaaz Foundation in 2016 to appeal to followers of all religions to advocate silence over noise. Every religion speaks of the beauty and peace of finding enlightenment, shanti, moksha or heaven. Almost every religion exhorts its followers to seek inner peace and hear the voice of god in quietude and tranquility.

Yet, loudspeakers that increase decibel levels beyond safe or legal limits and adversely affect the health of those in proximity, are routinely used for prayers and celebrations by all religions in India.

Not traditional

Many claim that reciting prayers and celebrations on loudspeakers is traditional, failing to remember that loudspeakers were invented in 1861. The public address system that most citizens are now familiar with followed only three decades later.

Loudspeakers were first used on the minaret of a masjid in 1936 in Singapore. In the millennia before, the unamplified human voice of muezzins called for the azaan.

The public display of festivals as political expression began with Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s protest during the struggle for freedom in 1894. Loudspeakers were added in the 1900s and became ubiquitous in processions post-2000 as technology made them more accessible and affordable.

Sound, noise and technology

Given the inexorable march of technology, mobile phones, radio and television can convey messages far more effectively than loudspeakers in 2022. As cities grow denser and residents by living in close proximity to others are forced to hear the activities of their neighbours, the use of new technology becomes more important.

Technology has led to the replacement of loudspeakers in many parts of the world. In several countries, churches and other religious places convey messages through dedicated television channels or mobile phone networks. In May 2021, Saudi Arabia restricted the use of loudspeakers for azaan because of the high decibel levels.

Do not politicise

In Mumbai, for instance, noise pollution is more than just a nuisance. Background noise levels in Mumbai due to traffic and construction are already far beyond permissible limits of noise rules and as well as the World Health Organization. Recently, I measured noise upto 95.3dB from traffic and 97.2dB from construction.

Like every individual pollutant contributes to make drinking water unsafe, each individual source of noise, big or small, contributes incrementally to make noise levels in Indian cities unsafe.

On March 27, Executive Director of the United Nations Inger Andersen warned of a global public health menace due to increasing sound levels: “As cities become more crowded, their soundscapes become a global public health menace,” she wrote.

However, instead of working to bring background noise levels within safe limits and to abide by the letter and spirit of court orders, the matter is instead being given a communal and political angle.

As Ramzan began a few weeks ago, Muslim clerics visited the police commissioner and volunteered to reduce the noise from the azaan. Politicians responded by threatening to play the Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeakers to drown out the azaan if loudspeakers were not removed. Different court orders have touched upon the misuse of loudspeakers and violation of noise limits for religious purposes.

In August 2000, the Supreme Court said, “Because of urbanisation or industrialisation, the noise pollution may in some area of a city/town might be exceeding permissible limits prescribed under the rules, but that would not be a ground for permitting others to increase the same by beating of drums or by use of voice amplifiers, loudspeakers or by such other musical instruments.”

In August 2016, the Bombay High Court ruled that the use of loudspeakers cannot be allowed by claiming it is an essential part of religion. “No religion or religious sect can claim that the use of loudspeakers or similar instruments for prayers or for worship or for celebrating religious festivals is an essential part of the religion which is protected under Article 25,” says the judgement in a case in which Awaaz Foundation and I are petitioners.

It goes on to say that the order to restrict decibel levels within legal limits “shall apply to religions and sects of all the religions,” and “places of worship of all religions”.

Arline Bronzaft, the co-founder of International Noise Awareness Day, told me that she has worked with five mayors of New York City to formulate and implement a noise code for the metropolis. “Loudspeakers and religion are essentially not a major issue in New York,” she said.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, even while speaking of Supreme Court and High Court orders, politicians cutting across party lines make statements that could aggravate religious sentimens and permit various sources of noise to become louder than ever, while the true effects of noise as a serious health hazard are sidelined.

Loudspeakers are a political tool that is being used to disrupt peace and the health of citizens, and to incite volatile sentiments for political and commercial gain. As ordinary people suffer, the political game of one-upmanship to create more noise pollution continues.

Sumaira Abdulali is an environmentalist and founder of Awaaz Foundation.

April 27 is International Noise Awareness Day.