If you live in Chennai, you would have, at some point, been woken up during the night or prevented from sleeping by the deafening noise of road drilling to lay cables for telecom companies. The work, outsourced to private contractors, causes unbearable noise pollution, quite like machine guns firing incessantly. The catch here is that the corporation of Chennai actually permits this illegal activity during nocturnal hours after a no objection clearance from the traffic police! Their logic is that this work cannot be done during the day as it would cause traffic disruption and other inconvenience. What about disruption of the sleep of citizens?
Why is the Pollution Control Board out of the picture here? Surely, they need to check whether the noise emanating from this activity is in keeping with the Noise Pollution (Regulation & Control) Rules, 2000, under the Environment Protection Act. Shouldn't road cutting permission be preceded by Pollution Control Board clearance as well? Ideally, night police patrol teams must stop such public nuisance on their own, actionable under Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code. In many cases, I hear that even the permission given by the civic body, held by the workers, is beyond the 30 day validity period. How will the civic body be able to enforce its own restrictions on road cutting "for a period of 3 months during monsoon seasons" and "for a period of 15 days prior to local festival, if any" if expired clearances are used?
In my opinion, the very permission granted by the civic body for this activity in the night, flies in the face of Constitutional Rights of citizens, environmental laws, penal provisions and judgments of the Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal. And common sense. And basic sensitivity.
Just look at the catena of decisions of the Supreme Court that have consistently banned activities that cause noise pollution, especially between 10 pm and 6 am. This does not include mere construction activity but also bursting of crackers, use of loudspeakers and even vehicle horns!
The Supreme Court in Forum, Prevention of Environment & Sound Pollution Vs Union of India made it clear that "freedom from noise pollution is a part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Noise interferes with the fundamental right of citizens to live in peace and to protect themselves against forced audience." The "time between 10 pm and 6 am is for people to sleep and have peace and no noise pollution can be permitted."
Way back in 2005, in Noise Pollution Assn, the apex court held that "anyone who wishes to live in peace, comfort and quiet within his house has a right to prevent the noise as pollutant reaching him. Any noise which has the effect of materially interfering with the ordinary comforts of life judged by the standard of a reasonable man is nuisance."
The National Green Tribunal in Supreme Court Housing Society Vs All India Panchayat Parishad ruled that "noise pollution not only causes annoyance, but also leads to significant adverse health impacts like rise of blood pressure, hearing impairment and neurological disorders. Children are most susceptible to noise pollution which may slow down the process of development of their mental capacity."
In the context of firecrackers, the ambient air quality standards in respect of noise has a cap of 55 decibels for residential areas during the day. Entry 89 of Schedule-1 of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, prohibit the manufacture, sale or use of fire-crackers generating noise levels exceeding 125 decibels or 145 decibels at 4 meters distance from the point of bursting. The permissible limit for a series of crackers is 105 decibels. Road cutting work probably creates more noise than crackers and is almost continuous and through the night. A tractor scraper is said to produce 93 decibels, a rock drill 87 decibels and an unmuffled concrete breaker 85 decibels. The road drilling equipment is likely to be as noisy as some of these tools.
Even the use of loudspeakers at political rallies or general functions is restricted by the Noise Pollution (Control & Regulation) Rules. Prior written permission from the authorities is mandatory. They cannot be used between 10 pm and 6 am, except in auditoria, community halls and banquet halls. The Supreme Court in Church of God (Full Gospel) in India Vs K.K.R. Majestic Colony Welfare Assn. observed that "activities which disturb old or infirm persons, students or children having their sleep cannot be permitted." So are telecom companies above the law?
The nocturnal drilling has another downside. Under the cover of darkness, there is no supervision by a responsible official to ensure that the terms under which the permission was granted are adhered to. Section 226(1) of the Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, mandates that " no person shall make a hole or cause any obstruction in any street unless he previously obtains the permission of the commissioner and complies with such conditions as he may impose. Clause (2) stipulates that "when such permission is granted, such person shall, at his own expense, cause such hole or obstruction to be sufficiently fenced, and enclosed, until the hole or obstruction filled up or removed and shall cause such hole or obstruction to be sufficiently lighted during the night."
The application for road cutting permission carries a 7 point undertaking such as proper barricading, cautionary tapes and lights, use of a specified road cutting blade and drill, carrying away of the excavated material and filling it immediately.
The actual dimensions of the portion to be cut is to ensure that water, drainage and electricity pipes and cables are not damaged. Going by complaints of water getting mixed with sewage, post road cutting, this is obviously not taken too seriously.
Our roads are already battered. A civilised society cannot allow entities to run amok and disturb our sleep. Yawn.
(The writer is an advocate at the Madras high court, columnist & author)...