In the days before the development of environmental jurisprudence, the Common Law remedy against nuisance was the only means available to curtail excessive noise, and this was wholly based on the discretion of the judge. Whether a particular noise constitutes a nuisance, after all, is often a question of degree. The development of standards for public conduct, as well as case law in this area, has led to significant changes in our understanding of noise pollution and the measures adopted to check it.

Noise, by definition, is unwanted sound. What is pleasant to some ears may be extremely unpleasant to others, depending on a number of factors. The natural environment contains many sources of noise - wind, volcanoes, oceans, and animal sounds are all familiar intrusions accepted at various levels. Man-made noises - from machines, automobiles, trains, planes, explosives and firecrackers, etc. - are more contentious. Both kinds of noise affect sleep, hearing, communication, as well as mental and physical health.

Pollution is a noun derived from the verb pollute, meaning: to foul. It is now increasingly understood that pollution from noise is an important component of air pollution, which was previously understood as being limited to material pollution. Noise is an inescapable by-product of the industrial environment, which is increasing with advances in industrialization and urbanization. Even in non-industrial areas, noise from such activities as printing, auto-repair, grinding, affects those living in the immediate surroundings. Noise not only causes irritation or annoyance but also constricts the arteries, and increases the flow of adrenaline and forces the heart to work faster. Continuous noise causes an increase in the cholesterol level resulting in permanent constriction of blood vessels, making one prone to heart attacks and strokes. Health experts are of the opinion that excessive noise can also lead to neurosis and nervous breakdown.

Noise travels through air and hence it is measured in ambient air quality level. Noise is measured in decibels. Experts believe that continuous noise levels in excess of 90 decibels can cause loss of hearing and irreversible changes in nervous systems. The World Health Organization [WHO] has fixed 45 decibels as the safe noise level for a city. Metropolitan areas in India usually register an average more than 90 decibels; Mumbai is rated the third noisiest city in the world, with New Delhi following closely.

A limited regulatory environment

Although a regulatory environment has slowly been built up around many activities, these do not usually address noise pollution specifically. Even when regard for the public is taken into consideration, the laws usually confine themselves to other matters, or do not adequately address noise issues. For example:

  1. The Factories Act, 1948: Surprisingly, no industrial law provides any protection to workers from noise pollution. Section 11 (I) of the Act stipulates that every factory shall be kept clean, without having any nuisance; the word 'nuisance' may include noise, but statutory provisions in industrial law to provide this protection specifically are overdue. It is also noteworthy that under section 35 of the Act, protection is given for the eyes of an employee but no such protection is provided to ears.

  2. Motor Vehicles: Vehicles are among the chief noise producers in modern times. The Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 through sections 20, 21 (j), 41, 68, 68 I, 70, 91 and 111 empowers a state government to frame rules for the upkeep of motor vehicles and control of noise produced by them. If the provisions of the Act were even half implemented, noise in urban areas would reduce considerably. But the Motor Vehicles Rules made by states do not contain any effective control measures to control noise pollution except a meager control of horns and silencers of the motor vehicles.

  3. The Aircrafts Act, 1934: The Central Government has the power to make rules for manufacture, possession, use, operation, sale, import or export any aircraft, as well as the regulation of air transport services. The Act has many provisions but none for the control of noise. In this regard it is suggested that aerodromes be constructed far away from the residential areas of a city in order to protect residents from the noise created by frequent take-offs and landings. But three of India’s busiest airports are located close to residential localities.

In the absence of an adequate regulatory framework specific to noise pollution, the status quo has been determined partly by the interpretation of other laws. Important among these have been Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, and Article 25, which protects the free profession of one's religion. The use of a loudspeaker, or setting of fire-crackers, has assumed the status of a fundamental right by virtue of these two articles. Municipal bye-laws regulating their use have been enacted, but must take care not to limit the freedoms afforded by the articles. Also, unless the connections between noise and health are first judicially established, prohibitions against their use are difficult to pass. The judiciary has nonetheless weighed in on questions of noise pollution.

The response of the judiciary

Pollution being wrongful contamination of environment which causes material injury to the right of an individual, noise can well be regarded as a pollutant because it contaminates the environment, causes nuisance and affects the health of a person and would, therefore, offend Article 21, if it exceeds a reasonable limit. A number of different rulings have provided guidelines for what is permissible, and what is not.

  • Way back in 1952 the Bombay High Court [State of Bombay v Narasu Appa Mali, AIR 1952 Bom 82] asked authorities to regulate the use of loudspeakers during night when the Ganesh and Navratri festivals were being celebrated. The Court ordered the strict implementation of Environmental Acts, ruling that the means of celebration of festivals must not disturb the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood.

  • Where noise can be said to amount to nuisance, a person causing noise can be restrained by injunction, even though that person was causing noise in the course of conducting his business. Where the nuisance complained of and found was noise generated by the hammering of steel sheets with hammers varying in weight from half a pound to four pounds, it was held [Godham Construction Co. v. Amulya Krishna Ghose, AIR 968 Cal 91] that no money could afford adequate relief to the plaintiff and his neighbors who are thereby discomforted.

  • In a writ petition filed by the residents of a housing association complaining about noise pollution caused by an iron and steel factory, the Gujarat High Court considered ‘who came first [GIDC Housing Association v. Gujarat, 1997 Guj 221]. According to this rule a person who goes to a place of nuisance cannot complain unless the nuisance began afterward. Since the housing colony was within the industrial estate and was established after the factory was functioning, the court held that the residents had come to the place of nuisance, hence cannot complain.

  • On the use of multi toned electric horns which produce a shrill discomforting sound, the Calcutta High Court held that the State authorities should strictly implement the Motor Vehicles Act 1988 and ban the use of such horns and impose fine wherever necessary [Rabin Mukherjee v. West Bengal, AIR 1985 Cal 222].

  • The Noise from use and bursting of fire crackers came up before the Calcutta High court [Burrabazar Fire Works Dealers Association v. The Commissioner of Police, Calcutta 1997 (2) CLJ 468]. Taking a highly activist stand, the court put severe restriction on the manufacture, storage and selling of fireworks even in the absence of specific legislation for controlling noise creators. The High Court relied on the Constitution, specifically Art. 19(1)(a) read with Art 21, to hold that citizens have a right to a decent environment, right to live peacefully, right to sleep at night and right to leisure, which are all the necessary ingredients of the right to life.

  • In Free Legal Aid Cell v. Government of NCT of Delhi [AIR 2001 Delhi 455] the Court directed for the establishment of separate courts to deal with the problem of noise pollution. Further all District Magistrates should be empowered to issues prohibitory orders to limit the hours for the use of loudspeakers. The Court directed the Delhi Government to restrict the use of firecrackers in religious festivals, marriages, processions etc.

  • Religious right to means of expression:

    The Courts have approached the subject of regulating noise in religious institutions with caution and reverence and most decisions have been based on the bare facts of the case without the Judiciary offering comment about the religious practices themselves.

    In Biranagana [Birangana Religious Society v. Orissa, 1996 100 Cal WN 617] the Court upheld that power of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate to direct a religious organization against the use of microphones, which might hinder the rights of citizens to lead a life of peace and tranquility.

    The Kerala High Court asked a Christian denomination not to use loudspeakers on the ground that it would disrupt the law and order and it might be inconvenient for the other group of citizens [P A Jacob v. S. V. Kottayam, AIR 1993 Ker 1]. Rejecting the petitioners claim of freedom of speech and expression, the Court held that ‘ recognition of the right of speech and expression is recognition accorded to human faculty. A right belongs to human personality and not to a mechanical device.

    In an organized society, rights are related with duties towards others including neighbors. This was reiterated when the Apex Court came down heavily on the practice of beating of drums and use of loudspeakers early in the morning in places of worship [Church of God (Full Gospel) in India v. KKR Majestic Colony Welfare Association and others, 2000 SCC 282]. The Supreme Court ruled that no religion prescribes this practice. In a landmark judgment, the Court held that no religion prescribes or preaches that prayers are required to be performed through voice amplifiers or by disturbing peace and tranquility.

  • In Sayeed Maqsood Ali v The State of M.P. [Air 2001 M.P. 220], it was held that even a single individual can maintain a writ petition against noise pollution. A dharamsala operating near the residence of a cardiac patient was ordered to limit noise levels resulting from its operations.

The Noise Regulation Rules 2000

These rulings, and the continuing pressure for specific legislation eventually led to the addition of the Noise Regulation Rules (2000) to section 3 of the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. The EPA is the umbrella legislation to deal with the every dynamic issue in relation to environmental protection. The rules regulate noise levels in industrial, [75 decibels] commercial [65 decibels] and residential zones [55 decibels], and also establish zones of silence (100 meters) near schools, courts, hospitals, etc. The rules also assign regulatory authority for these standards to the local district courts. Some important observations from the rules:

  • No permission can be granted by any authority for use of public address system in the open after 10.00 PM and before 6.00 AM. No exception is possible. Any person or organization making noise on amplified system after 10.00 pm is violation of the law and the person can be prosecuted under the provisions of the EPA 1986. Only District Magistrates can grant permissions after 10.00 PM for functions within closed premises. District Magistrates cannot grant permission for use of any amplified public address system after 10.00 PM.

  • After permission has been procured the sound must fall within the sound limits prescribed in the Noise Rules. This can be measured on a sound meter. Any person violating the Rules is liable to be arrested under the stringent provisions of the EPA.

  • If the authorities do not act to stop violation of the Noise Rules, the citizen who has filed a complaint can approach the Court with his complaint after 60 days' notice and the Court can initiate prosecution.

  • The rules also fix different ambient air quality levels for firecrackers and industrial activities.

  • The rules are silent on noise from vehicles, which is regulated by the Motor Vehicles Act 1988 (although the prohibition against the use of multi-toned horns is hardly enforced). Police and ambulance sirens are still used in ordinary transport vehicles as horns, and mufflers are disengaged or absent even in Euro-I certified vehicles.

The rules are clearly a step forward although they do not attempt to create comprehensive legislation on noise pollution, and continue with the piece-meal approach to specific problems encountered over the years. They are further evidence that the legislative side has often lagged judges' efforts to create and regulate a fine balance between competing demands - from religion, the environment, public health, law and order, etc. As a result, notwithstanding progress in understanding and documenting the various negative effects of noise pollution, there is still much that remains undone.