By Debokarsho Dutta, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

Pollution in many ways seems like an inevitable curse of human civilization. With greater emphasis on material structures of progress, focus on the indisputable logic of “urbanization” as a manifestation of that progress and a seemingly perplexing lack of consideration for the immaterial, the spiritual and the metaphysical seems to have brought us to a point where the consequences of pollution appear to have surpassed the limits of acceptability and the only thing left is for us to experience the disastrous consequences of those far-reaching changes for our unfortunate future generations.

In the Indian context, this issue takes on a more complicated character not only owing to our history of living in harmony with the environment but also regarding the somewhat inescapable trade-off between development and environment that characterizes the policy choices of all developing countries in the modern world today. It has been established well beyond doubt by now that “noise” above a certain level of measurement poses not only physical threats to human well-being such as loss of hearing, headaches, etc. but also more covert alarms such as depression, alienation, increase in levels of frustration, lack of concentration that in turn affect all other physical aspects of existence.

To understand the nature of this problem effectively, it is prudent to look at the legal framework in India to manage the issue, mechanisms to combat it and whether these provisions are satisfactory for addressing the growing levels of noise in Indian cities.

Section 2(a) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, includes “noise” in the definition of what is considered as an ‘air pollutant’ with an implicit model of reference. The Act states that any solid, liquid or gaseous substance that causes harm to the natural environment or any creature part of that environment is a “pollutant”. Since noise is transferred through a gaseous medium, anything falling in the category of being an irritant to natural existence in an appropriate concentration falls under this Act.

The most comprehensive framework in this regard was however not laid until the year 2000 when the Central Government instituted “The Noise Pollution (Regulation and Control) Rules, 2000” under the broader ambit of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. This framework laid the ground rules for future legislation and debate regarding noise pollution in the country and empowered the Central and State Governments to propose and pass legislation in this regard, although the process has been extremely arduous and lacks any real zeal for undertaking significant change.

The framework does however extensively lay out what is considered as “noise nuisance” and gives a comprehensive picture of the sources and nature of noise pollution in India. As a growing nation, India has witnessed a dramatic rise in factory production, levels of construction and real estate as well as a widely reported increase in both commercial and private vehicles plowing the roads. Moreover, the large scale increase in urban population(s) along with socio-cultural practices such as the burning of firecrackers, playing loud music or speeches on loudspeakers in residential areas during elections, festivals or cultural functions have had adverse effects.

The framework divides areas into four categories and prescribes limits to the amount of sound or noise that is permissible in each of the areas in decibels (the unit for measuring sound intensity) represented in the table below.

Category of Area Maximum Limits of Sound in Decibels

Daytime(6 am -10 pm)

Maximum Limits of Sound in Decibels

Night Time(10 pm – 6 am)

Industrial 75 70
Commercial 65 55
Residential 55 45
Silent 50 40

The regulatory framework of 2000 also lists out the legal provisions in place for managing issues related to noise pollution and framework for future legislation. Some of the basic provisions include the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution which is a fundamental right and ensures a dignified and peaceful existence under law.

Furthermore, Articles 48A and 51A empower the State to institute provisions that protect the sanctity of the natural environment including forests, wildlife, water bodies, etc. This was done by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment of 1996.

These constitutional provisions were first tested in State of Rajasthan v. G. Chawla, where the Supreme Court was posed with a difficult question regarding the limits of the power of individual States to control and manage noise pollution and impose punitive measures on defaulters. Another question before the Court concerned the issue of freedom of speech and to the extent to which the right could be held to be absolute. The Court ruled that the State Governments were within their right to introduce legislation on issues related to sound pollution under Entry 8, “Public Health and Sanitation of List II provided under the Seventh Schedule”. The Court held that the States “have the right to control loud noises when the rights of such user, in disregard to the comfort and obligations to others, emerge as a manifest nuisance to them”. It should also be mentioned that injury suffered by private individuals is actionable under the Law of Torts in India.

The Indian Penal Code consists of provisions for addressing issues related to the illegality of noise pollution, which are covered under Sections 268 and 290 according to which noise is actionable as a “public nuisance”. It is useful to note that despite the existence of these provisions which impose legal obligations on individuals and organizations causing public nuisance through noise, these provisions have not been used adequately to combat the menace of noise pollution comprehensively, reason being, their relegation to a somewhat secondary or residuary position in the IPC which prescribes nominal punishment and is not a strong enough deterrent. For instance, Section 290 prescribes a punishment of INR 200, a meagre amount, in case of violation which is simply not enough to merit any sort of serious deterrence. Furthermore, instances of prosecution are rare as the offense of public nuisance under Sec. 290 is essentially non-cognizable. The provision also does not allow for any preventive mechanism to be established and is only nominally punitive in nature.

The Criminal Procedural Code also has a provision which empowers the Magistrate to make a conditional order that requires the individual(s) causing nuisance through noise disturbances to address the matter with immediate effect.

The Police Act of 1861 grants extensive powers to the Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, and allied authorities to control the menace of noise arising out of various processions, marches, etc. by exercising control and supervision over the routes and permissions related to these events. Sec. 30A of the Act empowers senior officers of the law to disperse crowds or declare assemblies as unlawful whenever they pose significant public nuisance in the form of a threat to order and peace. 

Other important legal provisions include the Aircraft Act of 1934, Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 and the Factories Act of 1948. 

The Aircraft Act of 1934 has provisions that are actionable in cases where the operation of aviation services causes damage or injury in a wilful manner. Under Section 8(a) of the Act and its superseding rules laid out under the Indian Aircraft (Public Health) Rules, 1946, the government has the power to pass legislation regarding noise and health standards. It should be mentioned here that it is virtually unheard of that an airport or aviation authority or organization has been drawn into a legal battle suffering penalties as a result of non-compliance of noise regulations laid under this Act. 

The Motor Vehicles Act of 1939 has provisions which empower the respective state governments to undertake legislation for the control and management of safety regulations and environmental degradation including emission of noise. However, the Motor Vehicle Rules laid out by most of the States do not address the issues of noise in a detailed manner and only make oblique generalized references to the matter. 

A very similar situation is observed in cases of the Factories Act 1948, which does not contain any provisions for managing and imposing legal obligations on noise control despite the fact that factory-produced noises are one of the biggest threats to the physical and mental health of workers. The only part of the Act which has any real significance in terms of noise management is Section 11 which makes it obligatory for the occupier to keep the factory free from any sort of drain, privy or other nuisance (including noise).

In conclusion, it can be said that as a developing country facing myriad challenges, combating noise pollution was not on the initial agenda post-independence. It is reasonably clear from the above deliberation that most of the provisions that now govern the question of noise pollution are essentially residuary and are often found lacking in legislative will to make any profound changes. There is a degree of policy inertia when it comes to the slow pace of legislation relating to sound pollution despite the large scale changes that have taken place in the industrial sector and indisputable negative effects of noise disturbances. The object of this piece is to merely create a backdrop for discussion and lively debate on these topics as the formulation of effective policy will not be achieved unless there is a clear idea of the fundamental importance of these issues and the role they have to play in determining our common future.