Sumaira Abdulali is at the forefront of the movement against noise pollution in Mumbai. Sumaira, who was born and brought up in a family of environmentalists, says these concerns come naturally to her. For more than a decade, she has worked extensively on two issues that affect the environment — noise and sand mining. Through her NGO, Awaaz Foundation, Sumaira advocates the need for silent zones and the implementation of safe noise limits during festivals. Awaaz also deals with the pertinent issue of sand drudging, an activity that affects the bio-system across the city’s coastline, reports Mumbai Mirror.
Sumaira’s efforts began in 2002, a year in which she accompanied her uncle to Alibaug. Here, she came across a number of encroachments on the coast. Despite several complaints, the authorities took no action. Sumaira caught the encroachers and testified against them. She returned 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 realise the kind of impact that it can have on their health and mental peace. I started out 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 permissible limits of 55 decibels was a joke,” she says.
In 2006, Sumaira’s passion gradually culminated into the formation of her organisation, Awaaz Foundation, which had no organisational structure and has evolved as a purely volunteer-based support system. Sumaira 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.”
“The police said there will be riotous opposition if they stopped noise at religious festivals and places of worship,” recalled Sumaira. “Some reminded me that there are more urgent problems like poverty and malnutrition. Others said that the increasing city noise was a sign of development and growth and the clock cannot be turned back. I was accused of destroying Mumbai’s cultural fabric” said Sumaira in a report in The Washington Post.
Sumaira realised that the situation wouldn’t change unless the government set strict laws on noise levels. But she did not know 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. We wanted the creation of silence zones around educational places, courts, hospitals and religious places,” she said.
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. 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.
Her continued crusade against the sand mafia, one of the most powerful lobbies operating along the city’s coast, has been in the face of many threats. “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.” Sumaira’s work made such an impact that the sand mafia 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.