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Diwali: The Festival of Noise OR Honk If You Hate Noise

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For years I wanted to celebrate Diwali in India. I wanted to see homes lit up with clay oil lamps and feel the exhilaration of firecrackers. I now hope this is my last Diwali in India, until the cultural habit of firecrackers changes to something less toxic. Firecrackers Just Aren’t All They Are Cracked Up To Be

Actually, I have been in India on Diwali before. In 1997, I was on the back of a motorcycle riding from Madhya Pradesh to Haryana, with clay oil lamps in the villages and strings of multi-colored flashing electric bulbs lighting the way. There was a simple, touching beauty to the quiet ride. I arrived in my grandfather’s village the day after Diwali, in time to light a few leftover firecrackers.  In 2015, I was in Pune on Diwali and celebrated with my neighbor who had decorated her entire apartment with lights and rangoli, the colored powder artwork people apply on the ground everywhere, inside and outside. The city became festive, the people more friendly. People dressed their finest and behaved their best. It was exactly like Christmas in America.

However, the additional noise and air pollution, on top of already high baseline levels, is not a warm invitation to the Goddess of Health, Wealth, and Prosperity by any measure. Tradition has everyone scrupulously cleaning their homes, grooming impeccably, whitewashing their walls, balancing out their accounts, behaving with grace and generosity. Meanwhile, simultaneously, they are spewing excessive noise and toxic pollutants into the atmosphere. If I was the Goddess, I’d turn around at the city gates and go somewhere clean and beautiful.

Let’s talk about the noise factor first. It starts a few days prior to Diwali. The first cracker shot is a shock to the system. Bam! It sounds like a bomb just went off, inside the apartment complex. After, you’ve caught your breath, the birds have settled back into their trees and the dogs have stopped barking, another one goes off, disturbing the peace again. And this goes on, with increasing frequency as Diwali approaches. And then, on the day of the new moon, people pull out their stockpiles and the city goes bonkers with the crackers. Just a week out from Diwali another long series of firecrackers went off inside the apartment complex, as if someone lit an entire case of firecrackers all at once.  We are 11 days out now and the firecrackers are still going. It’s like living in a war zone, except the unannounced acoustic assaults are being perpetrated by your neighbors instead of your enemies.

As it is, city life in India is noisy. The ubiquitous unmuffled auto rickshaws roaring through the streets. The incessant honking of horns, for no obvious reason. Often even on a completely empty road, as if to just remind God of one’s existence, like ringing the temple bell on arrival, but everywhere. The road has become the temple.

Standards for noise pollution set different limits based on the zoning of the area, as if your ear drums know of the zoning criteria. In India, the zones are classified as Silence, Residential, Commercial, and Industrial, with daytime limits and night-time limits ranging from 50 to 75 dB(A) Leq*, and 40 to 70 dB(A) Leq* respectively.

Pune University is a lush, green area of the city. As with many academic institutions, the real estate is prime, and the environment conducive to concentration, imagination, and other cognitive activities. A visit there feels like a relief from the din of the city. It’s zoned as a “Silence”area. The average ambient noise levels at Pune University, as measured by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) in 2014, the last year for which a report is available on their website, not unexpectedly exceed the limits set by the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) of 1986.  On a Sunday, the day of rest, when things do feel quieter, the noise levels measured were 84 dB(A) Leq in the daytime, and 69.8 dB(A) Leq in the nighttime. On a Monday, they were similar at 84 dB(A) Leq  and 70.8 dB(A) Leq, daytime and nighttime respectively. The EPA limits for the “Silent” zone 50 dB(A) Leq in the daytime, and 40 dB(A) Leq at night. I won’t detail the rest of the ambient levels in other zones, since you get the idea.  You can read the full report here. It’s difficult to find a quiet place or time in metropolitan India.

Clearly, there is concern about noise pollution on and around festival days in India, especially Diwali. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board publishes an annual report that focuses on the Festival of Noise, I mean Lights. The 2016 report for Pune shows the highest level reaching 92.7 dB(A) Leq. The highest EPA limit anywhere anytime is 75 dB(A) Leq.

One thing to remember is the dbA scale is not linear. The subjective perception of sound is different than the actual power of the sound waves, the sound intensity. The human ear perceives an increase of 6-10 dB as a doubling of sound intensity. But the sound pressure on the ear drum is doubled with an increase in just 3 dB. An increase from 60 db to 80 db is 100 times more intense, even though it will only sound like it is four times as loud. The damage to your ears comes from the power of the sound wave, not from how loud it sounds to you.

Sound Level Sound Intensity (Power) Perceived Loudness
60 dB 1x 1y
70 dB 10x 2y
80 dB 100x 4y

Chart courtesy of Noise Help

A firecracker exploding emits 140 dbA of sound power. The maximum allowable unprotected exposure time limit in 24 hours for 140 dBA is ZERO. NONE. NEVER. EVER. For children, the World Health organization sets the zero tolerance time limit at 120 dBA. Meanwhile, in India, it’s most often the children who are setting off the firecrackers. No wonder everyone talks so loudly in India.

The MPCB only monitors ambient noise pollution in major metropolitan cities 2 days of every year, and on two major holidays, Ganesha Chaturthi and Diwali. Last year, Miiint Technologies launched a noise monitoring app that gives the power back to the people.  The app is rather straightforwardly called the Noise Pollution Monitor. It crowd-sources the data collection from the public and can be used in any country, anywhere, anytime. It’s a free tool by which anyone can get informed about the noise levels their eardrums are being subjected to.

On learning about this app, I contacted the developer, Mr. Uday Kothari, CEO of Miiint Solutions.  You can listen to my interview with him in the podcast on this post. We discussed the significance of empowering people with collecting data, and the huge increase in the power of the data with a larger sample size. So, download the app and contribute your data points. If you are a statistician and are keen to analyze the data, let us know. You can contact me here.

We brainstormed some possible pressure points which could effect a reduction in ambient noise levels. Traffic police and auto rickshaw drivers suffer the ill effects of exposure to long hours of high levels of noise, and air, pollution in India, and ought to have a vested interest in their own health and well-being. At the same time, a driver’s license can easily be obtained without ever passing a meaningful test of knowledge or skill, facilitated by an “understanding relationship”, also known as a bribe. More stringent licensing requirements, enforced by police, could help organize traffic flow so it would be less necessary to honk your horn to inform your fellow roadmates you are coming.

Credit: [ UNITED ARTISTS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

There was a huge hullabaloo in India when the Supreme Court banned the sales of firecrackers in residential areas to mitigate the noise and air pollution problem around Diwali. People protested their religious freedom was being infringed upon. Fiddlers got on their roofs and cried, “Tradition!” But, firecrackers have only been a part of Diwali celebrations for less than a century. Sri Lanka was conquered with bows and arrows; Rama, Sita, and Laxman were welcomed back to Ayodhya with clay oil lamps, and the Goddess Laxmi prefers clean and quiet. Firecrackers are not traditional, nor are they religious, and they infringe on the fundamental rights of others to a quiet night of sleep.

We’ve covered noise here. I suggest covering your ears in India until people decide to drive using their eyes instead of just their ears, install mufflers on auto rickshaws, trust that God sees them, everywhere, worship within their hearts, and celebrate with music and song, instead of pyrotechnic offshoots of ammunition.

I just decided I will write this article in three parts, otherwise nobody is going to read it. How’s that for an abrupt ending. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3, where I’ll cover Diwali air pollution and the occupational health hazards of manufacturing firecrackers.


*http://soundpollution.blogspot.in/2005/02/definition-of-dba-leq.html

dB(A) is used to denote the dB scale weighted by a scale denoted by A. A in our case is the frequency response of the ear over the audio frequency range(20Hz – 20kHz).

“A”, in dB(A) Leq, denotes the frequency weighting in the measurement of noise and corresponds to frequency response characteristics of the human ear.

Leq is Equivalent Sound Level. It is a measure of sound level over a period of time. If the sound level of 55 dB for one second is followed by a silence of one second, the Leq will be 52 dB over those two seconds.

dB(A) Leq denotes the time weighted average of the level of sound in decibels on scale A which is relatable to human hearing.

Episode: Guest Bios & Individual Clips

Mr. Uday Kothari
UK-Photo-big
Mr. Uday Kothari is a Serial Entrepreneur, with 3 Decades in Business & Technology. He is a
TiE Pune Charter Member & Pune Angels. He also describes himself as a
Machine Learning/AI/Blockchain Enthusiast

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