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<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 148 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 2 , 2004

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The Riddle of Noise

Shamim Ahsan

In Dhaka you are never far away from noise. Often it is the deafening hydraulic horn, or the groaning of the ancient engines of cars choking the streets, sometimes it is the grinding machine mixing sand and cement in a nearby construction site or the high voltage shrilly shout in the name of band music in the ‘gaye holud’ programme from the rooftop in your neighbourhood that torment us. Noise follow you at yours heels. Unfortunately, many of us seem to be oblivious of the dear price we have been and will be paying because of our prolonged exposure to noise. As urbanites we must wake up to its adverse effects, if not for our sake, for the sake of our children.

Four p.m. is an apocalyptic time at Motijheel. Thousands of homebound people are engaged in mutual fight to get into whatever transports they can force themselves into. Amid this maddening rush of passengers and transports traffic constable Minhaz is seen patiently directing the erratic Dhaka traffics. The high-pitched, shrilly sound composed of all sorts horns flowing from the all sorts of vehicles, compounded with the shouts from the bus-helpers to attract passengers, don't seem to have any affect on his concentration. In Dhaka, you quickly learn to live in impossible situations.

No other city in the whole world illustrates better the fallout of urbanisation than Dhaka does. Over 10 million people live here in unhygienic proximity, inhale profusely polluted air, drink contaminated supply water, waste hours getting caught in traffic jams or feed the ferocious bloodthirsty mosquitoes sitting in the load shedding-sponsored darkness. If we can live with all these troubles noise pollution in comparison appears hardly threatening. We somehow seem immune to such "commonplace difficulties". In fact, Constable Minhaz doesn't even know what noise pollution exactly means, not to mention the possible health hazard he is exposing himself to. "I don't have any problem whatsoever. Towards the beginning I used to feel a bit disturbed, but over the years I have got used to it," he says in an assuring note.

There are thousands others like Minhaz. In fact, for a large number of city dwellers, noise pollution signifies little. It is at best a temporary irritant, never a grave concern. When Ashraf Hossain, a man in his mid-thirties, who sells cucumber in front of the Head Office of Sonali Bank at Motijheel, was asked the same question, he needed a breather before he could come up with an answer: "Yes, there is some noise here, but, people like me cannot worry about such trifle things."

In a country where the government doesn't do much unless and until compelled by forceful demand from its citizenry, the ignorance as to the effects of being exposed to noise is only perpetuating government inaction. The Dhakaites have, so far, failed to raise a voice of concern against noise pollution. They have developed over the years, an awareness as regards air pollution, but, as far as noise pollution is concerned, Dhakaites are yet to wake up to the danger it poses. No doubt, the prevailing general ignorance among the ordinary people about the gravity or magnitude of the effects of noise pollution is a cause for concern. The response by the conscious minority too has been feeble concerning noise and its effect on our auditory sense, and on the physical well being as a whole. The organisations that best represent the conscious section of the society as well as the media, who have been leading a combined movement of sorts for saving the environment, somehow haven't shown the same amount of zeal in mobilising the public against noise pollution. Banning polythene or two-stroke three-wheelers were made possible only when a well-directed movement against these were initiated.

One reason why noise pollution has never come to the forefront is perhaps, "the effect of air pollution or polythene bag is more immediate and visible than that of noise pollution," believes Dr. Nasser Ejazul Huq, a professor of Geology at Jahangirnagar University, who is also associated with Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA).

Immediate or not, noise pollution has grave effects both on our physical and mental health. "Continued exposure to noise damages one's hearing. The louder the noise the less time it takes to cause loss of hearing.

Cells of the inner ear are damaged and hearing deteriorates each time we are exposed to prolonged intense sound. The most horrible thing in noise-induced hearing loss is that it is permanent and incurable. The cells damaged in this way don't regenerate," reveals a WHO finding.

According to the same study, apart from hearing loss, noise pollution can cause lack of sleep, irritability, heartburn, indigestion, ulcers, high blood pressure and even heart diseases, claims the same study done by WHO.

The effect of noise pollution is proportionate to the duration of exposure to noise pollution. One burst of noise, as from a passing truck, may alter endocrine, and effect neurological and cardiovascular functions in many individuals. Prolonged or frequent exposure to noise tends to make the physiological disturbances chronic. Besides, noise-induced stress creates severe tension and contributes to mental illness.

Children are the most vulnerable to noise pollution. In Dhaka streets with the noise level twice and even thrice the tolerable level is extremely harmful for the children. Besides, the loud music children listen to on stereos, sometimes through earphones or while watching television, or at concerts where the volume is usually extremely loud, impairs hearing and harms their ability to concentrate. As a result, their learning capacity deteriorates. "Since we don't have any statistics about the victims of noise pollution in context of the area they live in and the duration of their exposure to noise, it is not possible to determine exactly how badly noise affects, but the effect is huge without any doubt," says Abu Naser Khan, general secretary of BAPA.

Another problem why noise pollution has grown unabated over the years is the absolute absence of legal intervention by the concerned government authority. Recently the government is working on a detail policy concerning noise pollution, informs Huq. "We, on the part of BAPA, organised a round table discussion where experts, environment activists, representative of civil society, media people, spoke on the issue. Our aim was to accumulate the suggestions and hand over the resolution to the government in the hope that they would incorporate some of them and make the environment policy all-embracing," Huq says. Laws, however, have been always there -- both the BNP and AL made law respectively in 1992 and 1997. However, as always, there has been no effort in applying these laws. "Though it is the responsibility of the Environment Ministry to tackle any environment-related issue, it doesn't have the manpower to monitor the implementation of these laws. Therefore, in absence of an active body that would look over noise-related issues, laws remain ineffectual. The responsibility to curb the violators of environment laws thus now rests with the law-enforcing agency. The police force already overburdened with more pressing duties cannot simply afford to look into these problems," Huq explains.

"There is a way out though", Huq offers a suggestion: "In different developed countries there are areas where the community itself takes care its well being, and when needed they can also seek the assistance of the law-enforcing agency. What they do is they choose some individuals who are respected by all in the community, and empower them with magistracy power so that they can act decisively in some pre-determined areas. We can take similar initiatives to look into environment related problems," he says.

One significant aspect of the problem of noise pollution is that it cannot be solved only through a policy decision as was possible in the case of polythene or two-stroke three wheelers. Banning horn is impossible, at least not at this moment, for practical reasons. 50-plus, stoutly-built Shahabuddin, a professional driver with 32-year of experience, explains the reason: "Well, these stupid rickshaw pullers always run into your way. Sometimes pedestrians get across from one side of the road to the other so idiotically that we cannot help honking the horn to clear them off. Besides, when we take a turn, it is imperative to use horn so that the vehicles coming from the opposite direction know about my presence". He, however, concedes that horns are often used excessively. "Most of these drivers you see driving in Dhaka know nothing of driving," for, as he puts it, " they haven't passed the qualifying tests for getting an original licence. These people bear fake licences, which they've got in exchange of bribe, not exams".

Horns, though the chief culprit, are certainly not the only source of noise. Noise pollution has a huge number and a whole variety of sources. And what makes noise pollution an extremely complicated problem is, very few of them can be solved by enacting laws. The wholesale use of loudspeakers by roadside medicine vendors or mosque committee members asking for monetary contribution for the development of the local mosque or the thousands of construction sites including high-rise apartment buildings where work often goes on day in day out, make the situation worse, and there are many more in the list, which cannot be stopped simply by making laws. Lot has to do with our culture and manners. People need to be sensitive to others' sufferings and have to have the awareness of the kinds of physical and mental torture they often cause by their mindless actions. Noise pollution is often created by stereos put on high volumes on the occasion gaye holud or birthday ceremonies; mikes used in meetings, waz or even cultural events arranged out in the open that go on till late at night without caring for a moment that their might be people whose health would be jeopardised. Without taking into account the fact that there might be a serious patients of heart diseases or students getting prepared for exams or, to put plainly, people trying to sleep after a hard day's work.

So, a larger chunk of the solution seems to lie in creating public awareness to achieve any real success in trying to clamp down on noise pollution. For that, there has to be a synchronised campaign by environment activists, representatives from civil society and the media. The government's role is also crucial. Whatever existing laws there are, they will have to be implemented. Only then, we may envisage a Dhaka without the regular auditory assaults directed towards our eardrums.


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