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Just a few days ago, when the city was gearing up to bid adieu to their beloved elephant god with crackers, dhol-tashas and festive music, Sumaira Abdulali was busy measuring noise levels across the city. She intended to use this data for her campaign against noise pollution.
Fifty-four-year-old Abdulali has been at the forefront of the movement against noise in Mumbai. Abdulali, who was born and brought up in a family of environmentalists, says that these concerns came naturally to her. For more than a decade, Abdulali has worked extensively on two issues that affect the environment — noise and sand mining. Through her NGO Awaaz Foundation, she has advocated the need for silent zones and the implementation of safe noise limits during festivals. Awaaz has also dealt with the pertinent issue of sand drudging, an activity that affects the bio-system across the city’s coastline.
Abdulali’s efforts began in 2002, a year in which she accompanied her uncle to Alibaug where there were a number of encroachments on coastal land. Despite several complaints, the authorities, it turned out, had taken no action. Abdulali caught the encroachers red-handed and testified against them. This proved to be a turning point. She came back to Mumbai and decided to dedicate her life to protecting the environment.
“I started working against noise pollution at a time when no one was talking about its harmful effects. People did not realize the kind of impact that it can have on their health and mental peace. I started out all alone with a noise metre in my hand and visited all possible places — traffic spots, celebration pandals — to measure noise. I was shocked to find that a permissible limit of 55 decibels was a joke,” she says.
In 2006, this passion gradually culminated into the formation of her organization, Awaaz Foundation, which had no organizational structure and had evolved as a purely volunteer based support system. Abdulali then visited various communities in the city and spoke to people about health hazards associated with excessive noise. “People were already affected by it and wanted to change it, but were scared to do so because big players were involved. In this country, culture and religion are two major factors that are conveniently used by politicians to secure their vote banks.”
Abdulali realized that the situation wouldn’t change unless there are strict laws and noise levels set by the government which people would have to follow. But she did not how to effect such a change. “I did not have enough legal knowledge to take this cause forward, but thanks to advocates like Ishwar Nankani, the foundation filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Mumbai High Court in 2007, seeking implementation of Noise Pollution Rules, 2000. We wanted the creation of silence zones around educational places, courts, hospitals and religious places, “she says.
In 2009, the High Court accepted the need for implementation of stricter noise laws and ordered the state government to implement noise pollution regulation rules notified by the Central Pollution Control Board, and the state government asked the municipal bodies to create silence zones. Awaaz Foundation systematically collected noise pollution data for the first time in India. It collated and presented it to state and Union governments, the courts, police and citizens.
Along with noise pollution, Abdulali launched her crusade against the sand mafias, one of the most powerful lobbies operating along the city’s coast. “Sand drudging is an extremely common activity in various places. This is not only affecting the biodiversity as it robs the ecosystem of its natural habitat, but it also becomes dangerous for hundreds of kids who are made to work in this often without any permissions.” Her work made such an impact that mafias saw her as a threat to their illegal activities and physically tried to harm her on many occasions. “I had gone to Kihim to inspect a site where these mining activities were operating when the mafias attacked me. The threats continued even later as they called me and said ‘aapko dekh lenge’. She then helped form MITRA (Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists), a network of NGOs to protect activists.
Abdulali says that increasing awareness is improving the situation, but a lack of political will continues to make things difficult. “Politicians and lawmakers should ensure that no loopholes are left in policies and that they are implemented in the right manner.” Her next project is a campaign against the excessive use of car horns in the city.