Calcutta Cacophony

A couple of years ago, my mother, then aged 74, was recuperating from an attack of hyper-tension, which was diagnosed as having some neurotic condition. She was frail, with an ischemic heart and even a loud sound would set her heart pounding. One morning, at about 9.30, a loud and screeching sound started to tear apart the relative tranquil of our neighborhood. The sound was painful to normal ears and for my mother it was harmful to say the least. As I went out to check the source, it revealed that some telephone company was digging a trench for a cable on the sidewalk close to my residence. Up close, the noise was tremendous and I saw the technicians using ear mufflers for protection. When I asked them what they thought the local residents would to get relief from such atrocity, typical indifferent replies followed. Typical because Kolkata is an indifferent city where creating noise is the order of the day.

Section 2 (a) of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 includes noise in the definition of ‘air pollutant’. One needs to feel this pollution in Kolkata as it is a place where everyone has gone berserk making noise. If you call your friend in Kolkata who is on the road in a typical workday, I bet you will need to shout to get a hearing. Your friend will also shout reminding you the definition of decibel.

Experts say that any noise above 80 dB is painful to human ear and continuous exposure such noise can induce serious health threats like hypertension, ischemic heart disease, annoyance and sleep disturbance apart from hearing loss. Sen, Bhattacharjee and Banerjee, three Engineer researchers conducted a study on the auto-rickshaw drivers of Kolkata to assess the exposure to sustained high noise (criterion level and threshold level kept in 90dB and 80dB respectively) during successive runs of the vehicles (up to 12 times maximum) to conclude that drivers undertaking four consecutive trips within Kolkata city traffic routes have higher noise exposure than the recommended standard. It was found that working in such places where daily noise dose exceeded 89dBA was more dangerous, even for those suffering from mild noise related hearing loss. It’s no wonder that auto-rickshaws are the most accident prone, presumably such noise affects judgment of the drivers, and risky for both the drivers and pedestrians. Read the paper here .

But auto-rickshaws are only a part of Kolkata’s noise story.  Kolkata is a city of compulsive honkers where people reportedly honk to express frustration, hurry or just to announce a right of way. Stand in a busy cross section of Kolkata Street and you will be amazed by the impunity with which vehicular traffic honk. There is practically no noise shed in Kolkata; the hospitals, schools or the homes for the elders suffer equally. Times of India reported: ‘If India, and to an extent Pakistan, are the honking capitals of the world, Kolkata is the hellhole. Motorists here honk for all reasons and for no reason at all.’ You may find the honking stories reported by media very revealing and here .

“In most countries, a horn is used only in extreme emergency or panic. Hence, the sound is muted. But in India, the device is almost an extension of the driver. It is in his psyche to sound it now and again,”

-Karl Slym president and managing director of General Motors India

Here is a video shoot of a couple of minutes of maddening Kolkata traffic competing with each other with horns.

If horns are the statement of a city bursting at the seams, the City of Joy also finds its unique expression in blaring out music and speeches through loud speakers for every conceivable reason – cultural, religious, social and political. The new Chief Minister of West Bengal whose capital is Kolkata has recently came up with the idea of playing Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore Songs) at traffic intersections. I am baffled by the idea. Music over 80 dB cacophony? I pity for the great man because every day his blissful music is trampled with millions of horns. Every year there is talk of clamping down on loud speaker menace and every passing ear sees failure. Politicians can do least in this matter as much of their election success lie on loud spoken speeches. I offer them a read of Planet Earth Summary .

I remember a popular Indian movie where a sequence showed how a gang of killers gunned down the whole family of a protagonist on a Diwali night. Can you imagine why they selected diwali night for the crime? It’s because gun shots are perfectly unnoticeable in any city in India during diwali night as crackers go on for hours drowning any sound, possibly a cry for help too. Kolkata used to be a heaven for cracker mongers but, in my opinion, this is a silver lining for Kolkatans as compared to year 2003, successive years are registering lesser noise during Kali Puja (Bengali equivalent of Diwali) and consequently lesser number of complaints. A West Bengal Pollution Control Board report shows it like:

Full report is here .

I shall, however, acknowledge that the credit goes not to the Enforcement Departments but to the hike in the prices of crackers.

Feature Image Courtesy : Journey of a repat


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