In the run-up to the 10-day Ganesh festival that begins on Friday, Ganpati mandals (festival organisers) in Maharashtra are feeling triumphant. On Wednesday (August 16), during a hearing in the Bombay High Court of a batch of petitions against the violation of noise pollution norms, the state government informed the bench that Maharashtra has no silence zones anymore. It said this was because the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had issued an amendment to the Noise Pollution Rules of 2000 on August 10, giving state governments complete authority to declare a space as a silence zone.

While the previous rules considered areas “not less than 100 metres around hospitals, educational institutions and courts” to be silence zones, the amended rules emphasise that no area can be declared a silence zone unless specifically notified by a state government.

News of this amendment has come as a shock to the state’s citizens and anti-sound pollution activists. “The Maharashtra government’s interpretation of this amendment – that there are no silence zones now – implies that they don’t want to apply the old definition of silent zones until new zones are notified,” said Sumaira Abdulali, convener of the Awaaz Foundation, which advocates against noise pollution in Mumbai.

On the other hand, Ganesh mandals are hailing the development as a double victory. They believe they will be free of silence zone restrictions during this year’s festival, and also that the amendment – which is applicable to the whole country – was a result of their lobbying for a relaxation of such norms for the past several years.

However, activists warn that if state governments do not notify silence zones soon, the amendment to the noise pollution rules could end up compromising public health across the country.

‘We celebrate festivals with a bang’

The Noise Pollution Rules of 2000 stipulate that during night hours (10 pm to 6 am) no horns, sound-emitting firecrackers or noisy construction equipment can be used in silence zones. They also prohibit the use of loudspeakers in public places without prior permission. However, for 15 days in a year, state governments can permit the use of loudspeakers for religious or cultural festivals right up to midnight, as long as the volume is within admissible decibel levels.

Even though the Maharashtra government relaxes restrictions on the use of loudspeakers for at least four or five days of the Ganesh festival, Ganpati processions are notorious for their loud firecrackers, drumming and music – often well beyond permissible limits – throughout the 10 days.

Over the years, citizen activists have repeatedly reported violations and filed petitions demanding compliance with noise pollution and silence zone norms, particularly during festivals. On the other hand, the Ganpati mandals – often backed by sponsorship from political parties – have been demanding the freedom to celebrate festivals without such restrictions.

“This is India, and our festivals are celebrated with a bang,” said Shankar Harale, a Ganesh mandal organiser from South Mumbai who has been campaigning against silence zones. “How can we take out our processions if there are silence zones everywhere?”

For several years, Ganesh mandals have received support and repeated assurances from the state government on this count. On July 6, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis held a meeting with Ganesh festival organisers and reportedly accepted their demand that his government consider issuing an ordinance to relax silence zone norms during the festival season.

In late July, the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state also sent a note to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests seeking a clarification about a “discrepancy” in the definition of silence zones in the Noise Pollution Rules 2000 and the schedule of the rules. While the rules describe areas 100 metres around hospitals, educational institutions and courts as silence zones, the schedule of the rules state that silence zones are such areas (100 metres around schools, hospitals, courts) “declared as such by a competent authority”.

The amendment to the Noise Pollution Rules, notified in the Central government Gazette on August 10, officially gives state governments the power to designate silence zones, to the detriment of citizen efforts to contain noise pollution.

Ganpati processions are known for their use of loud firecrackers, drums and music, often well beyond permissible limits. Photo credit: PTI.

An unexpected amendment

“The amendment was cleared silently, without a word about it in the media,” said Sumaira Abdulali, one of 10 litigants whose petitions against noise pollution violations are currently being heard in the High Court. On August 16, all the petitioners were taken aback by the state government’s unexpected announcement of the amendment in court.

“We know that the Maharashtra government has made many requests to the Ministry of Environment and to the High Court and Supreme Court to relax silence zone norms,” said Abdulali. “But they have been unsuccessful, and just two months ago, the state filed an undertaking in the High Court that they would follow the rules this year.”

However, Ganesh mandals had been receiving a different message from the state government. “In our meeting with the CM [chief minister], we agreed that there should be no restrictions on our festival, and now the Environment Ministry has given the state the right to decide what is a silence zone,” said Suresh Sarnobat, secretary of the Akhil Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mahasangh, which represents 200 Ganesh mandals in Maharashtra. “We will make sure we don’t disturb hospitals, but otherwise silence zone rules are too strict.”

Activists and petitioners are now studying the amendment to examine the validity of the state government’s interpretation, while still hoping for a favourable verdict from the court.

“After eight to 10 years of hard work, we have been getting good orders from the High Court asking the state to comply with the norms and enforce them,” said Mahesh Bedekar, a doctor in Thane city who began filing petitions because of repeated violations of silence zone rules near his maternity hospital. “The public and media are also more aware today, and we actually saw a drop in violations during last year’s Ganesh festival and this year’s Dahi Handi festival.”