Sumaira Abdulali

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Sumaira Abdulali's work was prepared when Sumaira Abdulali was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


By facilitating a transparent, citizen-led movement to link urban development and noise regulation, Sumaira Abdulali is spearheading a movement against the pervasive environmental hazard of noise pollution. Through her organization, Awaaz Foundation, she has successfully proven that noise pollution need not be a side effect of urbanization and economic progress. She is rallying citizens and civic authorities to take ownership of this issue by partnering with existing civil society institutions, the police, and others, to initiate innovative new approaches.

The New Idea

It is common knowledge in Mumbai, and other rapidly urbanizing cities in India, that noise is a necessary by-product of urbanization which people have to live with. However, with determination over the last five years, Sumaira and Awaaz Foundation, have managed to make authorities and of civil society aware of noise pollution as an environmental hazard. Significantly, she has evoked policy discussions to implement noise regulations for urban planning in Mumbai.

When Sumaira realized that sporadic approaches issuing noise violations or complaints would not produce lasting change, she systemized her approach. She developed a consistent strategy to identify, define and review the problem of noise. Sumaira researches the situation by collecting measurable data on noise levels and related issues and is the first person in India to demand noise mapping of Mumbai as a means of scientific data collection. She has conducted a proof of concept in a few communities and her findings are available to the public. These findings are then used to activate civic, legal, and administrative bodies to enforce laws and be accountable in relation to sound. Significantly, she is creating an environment where noise pollution is a priority among the citizenry and instigating them to act as monitors.

Using a base of volunteers, Awaaz Foundation is creating an informed citizenry to address the problem. This approach is a low-cost yet efficient model to monitor and enforce noise regulation. Furthermore, it has ensured that the movement will spread to other cities where noise pollution is a growing menace—beyond Awaaz Foundation and Sumaira.

The Problem

Noise must first be recognized as a public health concern by citizens. There is evidence that changes in heart rate and increased blood pressure, cholesterol, and adrenaline levels, are among various other complex medical conditions that are directly related to prolonged noise exposure. In spite of these medical concerns, noise pollution is not regarded as a serious threat in daily life, by civic authorities, the police or the average citizen. Noise has never been considered a pollutant in the same sense that atmospheric contaminants, such as carbon dioxide and chloro-floro carbons have. There has never been a public education campaign about the health impacts of noise and few alternatives to noise offsets have been explored.

Mumbai Traffic Police have declared Mumbai the third noisiest city in the world. The police are perceived by the public as the sound-regulating authority, but are stretched by the need to tackle more urgent crime problems. Three major sources of identified noise are traffic, construction, and cultural activities (especially festival based celebrations); common across most cities in India.

Many health problems both physiological and psychological are caused by sustained exposure to loud noise. The most common among police officers is temporary or permanent hearing loss. A study conducted in 2006 on traffic policemen in Mumbai revealed that over 90 percent suffered from significant hearing loss. While the police have a powerful labour organization, they lack a comprehensive approach to limiting their exposure. As an organization, they believe it is their mandate to protect public safety by solving homicides and dealing with violent crime supersedes the need to protect public health, including their own. Though there is legislation the police can use to enforce noise regulation (noise standards are enumerated in the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and Noise Pollution (Control and Regulation) Rules were amended in the year 2000), there is little awareness about what are acceptable levels of noise, and dangerous levels of noise, among authorities and civil society. Thus, permissible limits of noise pollution are routinely flouted.

Though there have been sporadic challenges to the invasion of noise in urban society today, both in the courts and through the media, there are no effective formal structures of redress. A concerted effort to address noise pollution is absent because there has been no systematic information collected on noise levels in the city of Mumbai. The city planners have not taken noise levels into consideration when they design a new building complex or permit a space for commercial use. Construction noise is also not regulated. This lack of urban planning creates cities where noise claims may flourish, strain those living there, and consequentially, strain the medical system. It is commonly believed that noise pollution is an unavoidable and necessary consequence of urbanization and globalization.

The Strategy

Sumaira is building a public movement that will control noise pollution; a movement supported by law, policy, and the public, with effective implementation on the ground. She has developed an approach which combines public participation with consistent scientific data, education, and independent monitoring of statutory authorities, to achieve administrative reform.

Using Awaaz Foundation, Sumaira engages citizens as well as administrative, legal, and social structures, such as courts of law, police departments, government ministries, Cos, and city municipal bodies, on the issue of noise. First, she catalyses energy at the citizen level. Awaaz Foundation then engages citizens to increase information and capacity in society; enabling those who recognize a societal problem, to tackle it. This often means educating people about the law and available legal recourse to help them to enter advocacy and reform on the fray. For example, Awaaz has equipped citizens who live near open spaces (where loud speakers are used for large events and celebrations) with the resources to petition the police and courts and assisted them to build their cases with relevant data. Most cases have successfully ensured that noise regulations are put into effect.

A further success has been to activate citizen groups and Ward units to fight noise pollution, act as monitoring mechanisms, and support citizen complaints. Sumaira has involved participation from professionals and COs specialised in noise mitigation and pollution study, as well as those dealing with noise pollution’s detrimental effects, such as hearing disabilities. This has strengthened both individual struggles, as well as advocacy with various authorities. Sumaira has found that the issue of noise pollution brings all types of COs into agreement and together to build on a common platform. This solidarity is invaluable; formerly opposed organizations are now motivated to pursue conversations around noise and this cooperation will undoubtedly expand to other areas of their work.

Through Awaaz Foundation, Sumaira has created a research and resource centre and action base for monitoring and measuring noise pollution, generating the opportunities to quantify, map, and understand the extent of the problem and develop sustainable, long-term solutions for maximum impact. These solutions include the adoption of technologies that cut down noise pollution, such as ‘distributed sound technology’—successfully implemented at a famous musical festival, the Banganga festival in Mumbai, in 2003—the data and report of were shared with the government.

Sumaira is also using every strategy to encourage the government and bureaucratic mechanisms to fight noise pollution: Raising the issue in court and using the Right to Information Act to get data and follow up on progress. She involves media in awareness and action campaigns and organizes meetings and conferences which brings the issues to the officials responsible for devising and implementing solutions.

Sumaira works in consortium with the police department of Mumbai, especially traffic police. To keep them motivated, she scrupulously follows a policy to be fair with both praise and criticism when monitoring their activities. The pay-off is apparent. Noise from loudspeakers is being controlled to a large extent in Mumbai and the 10pm noise deadline is enforced by police in most of the city. Additionally, in April 2008, traffic police launched ‘No Honking Day’ in coordination with Awaaz Foundation. The Police department now heeds noise as a serious environmental pollutant and recognizes their role to tackle it. Next, she will engage and partner with police in other cities to replicate Mumbai’s comprehensive approach. Here too, she will engage citizen actors and put noise regulation on their agenda.

Awaaz Foundation has also gotten other appropriate authorities, including the Municipal Corporation, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, and Firecracker Distributors Associations, involved in the fight against noise pollution. While implementation of possible solutions still needs to be undertaken, it has been successful in creating awareness among these authorities and has received their cooperation on testing issues. The issue of Noise Mapping is a case in point.

Sumaira has introduced Noise Mapping as a tool to integrate hard data with urban planning. The maps will be integrated in the Development Control Plan of Mumbai, to bridge the gap in existing noise identification. This proposal was planned and presented to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and the Government of Maharashtra in 2005, and though it received a positive response, there was no follow-up action. Awaaz took the matter further by filing a Public Interest Litigation in court. The objective: To get the noise mapping project underway and they are currently fighting the case.

Additionally, Awaaz Foundation realizes the need to educate both the authorities and citizens on the need and benefits of Noise Mapping. The organization is collaborating with the University of Mumbai to assign student volunteers to participate in a ‘Citizens’ Noise Map. Sumaira sees this as an amateur noise map superimposed on the Development Control Plan of Mumbai, and serving to create awareness in the government to provide budgetary provisions to draw up a comprehensive professional map.

Sumaira and Awaaz want a professionally conducted Noise Mapping Study to be integrated in the development control regulations for Mumbai city. Sumaira believes Noise Mapping has to become the basis for new infrastructure planning and road and railway alignments, as well as a tool to suggest mitigation measures. They are also considering Noise mapping to impact zoning and residential infrastructure value. For example, consumers should be informed of noise levels in the area before buying houses; which will make it mandatory for developers to ensure noise regulations. This will standardise licensing to public event organizers (like using loud-speakers).

Sumaira and Awaaz Foundation are also in conversations with government departments and civic groups in other cities. She seeks to involve the central government through the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in order to have an up-scale impact across state governments, state pollution control boards and COs. The results of this approach are bearing fruit. A combination of pressure and dialogue has had ground-breaking results with the Home Ministry of Maharashtra (the department responsible for coordinating overall internal Affairs of the state), and the Home Ministry has begun the process of formulating a plan of action to tackle noise pollution in Mumbai. It has convened a meeting with various departments with a stake in urban planning; from railways to the police, to understand what individual measures can be taken and what role they will play in a joint plan of action. This effort towards noise regulation is the country’s first, and will serve as a benchmark for other states and the central government. Awaaz Foundation is making noise factors important and necessary elements of urban planning and the model for initiating and implementing such integration is replicable across urban areas.

Once the education and Noise Mapping projects in Mumbai are firmly grounded, Sumaira will make her strategy available to citizen organizations. She mentored a citizen’s group in Pune (another strategic city in Maharashtra) in coordination with the police and monitored noise levels across the city. Noise pollution is now on the map of Pune’s civic administration.

Sumaira is committed to provide strategic support to other cities in India—both urban and semi- urban industrialised—and will organize national conferences on the issue where city-based reform bodies can exchange ideas about noise mitigation strategies. Sumaira has begun mentoring individuals and citizen groups in cities where the need to tackle noise pollution has emerged.

Sumaira’s vision is to develop Awaaz Foundation as a national nodal organisation to mentor and facilitate the consolidation of the movement against noise pollution across the country.

The Person

Sumaira hails from a family legacy of stalwarts and leaders who have participated and led social and environmental struggles. She admits that her personal learning journey owes much to their experiences and the motivation she drew from them. Sumaira is from a well respected Muslim family that have always been involved in progressive social issues. Her maternal grandmother was part of the Indian freedom struggle and her paternal grandfather was a stalwart on the issue of women’s emancipation and gender equality. Her father-in-law, Mr Humayun Abdulali, was completely dedicated to environmental issues.

Preferring to learn from life experiences rather than formal education, Sumaira chose to let go of a college education and got involved with environmental issues, such as the movement against sand mining. Taking her cue from her familial mentors, Sumaira was a passive participant, but actively opposed the lobby of sand miners (who had immense political and economic power). A turning point was when she put a stop to an illegal sand mining operation by standing in front of and blocking their trucks. This event put the illegal sand mining operations around Mumbai on the map of not only the media and general public, but the State administration, and it culminated in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Sumaira and other citizens.

From these experiences, Sumaira realised the need to provide a support network for those working for progress on various social, environmental, and cultural issues. In 2002, she began an organisation, Movement against Intimidation Threat and Revenge against Activists and with tireless efforts, it has been successful in persuading the Mumbai Police to create a special cell for to protect those undertaking legitimate activism.

At this time she joined her uncle Saad Ali, a pioneer in noise pollution, and filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court. The court order to the PIL and the subsequent reaction was a turning point in Sumaira’s journey as an environmental activist, and she was convinced her ‘life calling’ was to be a crusader against noise regulation. Two factors convinced her of the need to organise against it. First, the calls from those being victimised by this hazard, but didn’t know whom to turn to. And secondly, in spite of a favourable court order, the belief of much of society, including several persons of authority in the government and society, that the order was redundant due to the lack of an implementation system. These experiences were the cornerstones convincing Sumaira of the need to create a movement to organize the fight against noise pollution.

Sumaira has a persistent determination that inspires her work. Despite the barriers of a lack of information, insensitivity, apathy, and red tape, she relentlessly pursues her goal to mitigate noise pollution. With each experience of discouragement as well as each of path-breaking success, her resolve to work has only increased and she is committed to this movement until noise pollution is no longer an environmental hazard.