Sumaira Abdulali had been waiting her turn in court since morning and she could be there the rest of the day. It was 6 August, and the Bombay high court was supposed to decide on an appeal by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for relaxing noise rules in the silence zones for the 10 days of Ganeshotsav.
Inspired by my great grandmother Sakina Lukmani: In spite of being a Muslim woman and not having much freedom, she participated in the freedom movement. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
But she is used to waiting. In 2002, when Abdulali was working for Bombay Environmental Action Group (Beag), her team filed a public interest litigation on noise pollution in the high court. The first court order banning loudspeakers in silence zones was passed a year later. This time, the wait turned out to be two weeks long.
The matter was adjourned and it’ll be another day in court for Abdulali and her lawyers. But Abdulali doesn’t mind. It’s part of her job.
When I meet the 48-year-old lady at her residence in a leafy, charming bylane in Bandra, she’s just as composed as she was in court. As she describes her 10-year journey from a rookie NGO worker to battle-hardy activist, you realize that the mantle of “activist” doesn’t sit heavily on her shoulders. Soft-spoken and polite, Abdulali talks about her journey in a matter-of-fact way—the mundane paperwork, the long waits in court, the struggles with those in power and even a case of physical assault.
In a country like India, where the issues that need attention are many more than the people addressing them, it surprised everyone that Abdulali chose to fight noise pollution. No heart-rending personal backstory made her choose this cause. “I was more inclined to go back to a job after my kids. But I did not need to work for money. There are other important things in life and if each of us with some extra time took up an issue, our country would change,” she says.
Born and bred in Bandra, Abdulali helped her father with the family business till her marriage. A few years after her daughter’s birth in 1990, she found she had some free time and decided to work with her uncle Saad Ali, who was the chairman of Beag. Noise pollution was his pet cause, but he couldn’t make enough time for it, and Abdulali took it up.
It was through her efforts that noise pollution started getting attention, at least in Maharashtra. Small white boards saying “Silence Zone” can now be found outside the high court, schools and hospitals. On 7 April last year, Mumbai observed a “No Honking Day”, thanks to Abdulali’s efforts. Fifty NGOs and citizen groups participated in the campaign along with the Mumbai traffic police. Around 7,000 motorists were fined that day by the police.
After the court order in 2003, a newspaper published her number along with the news. She was inundated with calls. “People would cry on the phone with sad stories. There were sick people who couldn’t recover. A baby got convulsions because of loud festival noise,” she says.
But the passage of the order, like many others in our country, did not mean implementation. There wasn’t even any real data. It took her three years to collect and organize the data on noise levels in the city. She went to around 100 sites in the nine days of Navratri to get readings.
In 2006, she registered Awaaz Foundation as an NGO to work solely on the issue of noise pollution. As her two children grew up, she took up other environmental issues such as air pollution and illegal sand mining. In fact, in 2004, she says, she was assaulted at Kihim Beach in Alibaug by the son and employees of an MLA. They were allegedly trying to get away before the police arrived, but she blocked their way. “The sand mining still hasn’t stopped and it took me five years to finally get a hearing for it in the Alibaug court.”
And that, for her, is the hardest part. “It’s frustrating when people (politicians) who should be supporting you oppose you. But having said that, I have got a lot of support also.”
She already has her next battle lined up. The Maharashtra government has given the nod for helipads atop residential buildings. “Imagine the noise of a helicopter landing on that building,” she says, pointing at a building next to hers. “Why should we even be fighting this when it’s so obviously wrong?”