We Are The Worlds Loudest Country

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 30 2004, 03:38am hrs
If you surf the web for travelogues and diaries written by tourists of their personal experiences in India, the dominant theme is how the country reflects the sheer turmoil, struggle and full spectrum of the basic human condition. Actually, this is my language, the polite version. The real words are often on the lines of Be prepared for a shock or As you arrive in India, all your senses are hit at the same time, the smells, the colour, the poverty, the hygiene, the contrast and the noise.

We all know about and even laugh at the sights and smells of India, but noise Yes, it takes a trip to the outside world to realise how noisy and riotous the country is, not just our sprawling cities but also our highways, village eateries or picturesque hill-stations. Cars now come complete with stereos that play deafening Hindi music at full volume, the sound of diesel generators is ubiquitous and in fact has come to signify the local economy at work, and hundreds of thousands of out-of-tune trucks crisscross the country every day with their engines, horns, radios and broken exhausts at full throttle. And of course, during election or festival time, this sensory assault defies physical limits. No wonder, the description about India from the website of one of the most prestigious travel guides in the world starts with If there is a race of tranquillity-tramplers, it is the Indians.

The combined din is pushing the country to turn deaf. India has one the largest populations of the hearing impaired in the world about 9 per cent of the population with almost 2 per cent of the population being profoundly deaf. In most cities, big or small, the average noise level is at least one and half times over the prescribed safe limit. In Mumbai and Delhi for instance, noise levels during peak traffic hours, as recorded by the National Environment & Ecological Research Institute, has consistently been above 90 decibels in public spaces, which is well above the safe limit of 55 decibels. In industrial workspace, this problem is far worse, as a recent study conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences showed: Almost 40 per cent of all workers at Bokaro steel plant, suffer from mild to severe hearing loss.

These are astoundingly huge numbers of hearing disability. Of course, there are other reasons for the high incidence, including malnutrition, untreated viral infections in early childhood, medical misdiagnosis, and the tendency in many cases to treat ear infections with either home remedies or medicines offered by quacks (which often cause further and lasting damage) and so on. But the fact is that noise pollution is an enormous seriously problem but which is hardly addressed either by policymakers, police or society.

India has one of the largest populations of the hearing impaired in the world
We have less than 2,000 audiologists for a hearing-impaired population of 90 mn
In the larger world of public health in India, hearing disability is accorded a very low priority. There is an acute shortage of professional audiologists, with less than 2,000 available for a hearing-impaired population of 90 million, a vast inadequacy. Plus, there are only about 150 speech and hearing centres in the whole country which have proper audiometric testing and fitting facilities, most of them in southern India.

All this is such a pity, because unlike malaria, meningitis, polio or even AIDS, this is one malady that can be prevented, cured or at least minimised with the lowest amount of cost. For instance, the incidence of severe hearing loss could easily be drastically reduced if only there was a compulsory testing program during childhood in all government schools. In fact, what happens is that because there is no mandatory screening, the problem often goes undetected for several years, and given our social conditions and awareness levels many of these children are either wrongly placed in a school for the retarded or are labeled as inattentive.

Of course, the government pays much lip service and sympathy to the hearing impaired (like any other disadvantaged section) and funds many central and local welfare schemes on paper, including free or subsidised hearing aids for the poor. But in reality only some NGOs are doing any meaningful work in prevention, testing or other forms of assistance, including organisations like HelpAge India which imports, recycles and distributes free hearing aids to the poor.

But medical reasons and testing aside, what is needed are some very strong laws and an equal focus on social change to address the problem of noise pollution. We are the loudest country in the world, full of our sound and fury in more ways than one. Till today, asking anyone to turn the music down generally earns you a look of incredulity if not aggression, but this should no longer be seen as cute, funny or acceptable. Noise pollution has direct medical and social consequences. Our habits are doing more than provoking contempt by others, they are becoming a source of enormous costs.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors