Sunday, November 30, 2008

Government noise

Government noise
Stabroek News. November 30, 2008 @ 5:01 am In Editorial

The complaints are flooding in from all across the country – from Essequibo, from Bartica, from West Demerara, from the East Coast, from Berbice, and above all else, from the city. Anyone would think that creating a thunderous noise in or near a built-up zone would be against the law. But that is the astonishing thing – it is. The problem is not the law; it is rather that the law is not being enforced. And as too many residents know from bitter experience, there is no point in complaining to the police about a noise eruption in a residential area; they will do zilch about it. After all, who has not seen Georgetown’s Finest decked out in their fancy luminous jackets marshalling traffic unconcernedly, while towering speakers nearby blast their high-decibel emissions into homes far and wide.

And the reason for their dereliction of duty is not far to seek. Dr Joyce Jonas put her finger on it by implication in a letter to this newspaper on Monday: why expect the police to do anything about noise nuisance when the government itself actively breaches the Laws of Guyana in this regard? The Ministry of Tourism, for one, appears to have no inhibitions about sponsoring the commission of a criminal offence. In the particular instance to which Dr Jonas referred, the ministry was having a Sunday ‘Fun Day’ at the Sophia Exhibition Site, which she said was fun for absolutely no one in Lamaha Gardens. There was no thought for residents’ right to peace and quiet in their own homes apparently, or even the possibility that such a racket could interfere with some families’ religious observances.

Exactly what this lime was in aid of, is something of a mystery. Which tourists, one wonders, was the ministry catering for? Not the ‘eco’ variety, surely? But that is the trouble with the government. Whenever it holds a trade fair at Sophia, for example, it is accompanied by such noise pollution that anyone interested in pursuing deals with an exhibitor simply cannot hear themselves speak. There isn’t a trade fair in the world which would be held under such conditions, but here the administration appears to be so insecure about attendance, that it concentrates its attention on trying to attract the largest possible number of visitors rather than in facilitating genuine trade. If its approach does not quite recall the thinking behind the Circus Maximus of Roman times, it at least has shades of it.

So if the government is cynically breaking the laws (and the associated regulations) enacted on its own watch, it becomes harder to complain about the private businesses which follow suit. And this newspaper has had numerous complaints over the years about these. In recent times letters from a Bartica resident who had to endure three music sets operating in the centre of the town one night; from Mr Roshan Khan, writing on behalf of residents in Atlantic Gardens about the noise levels which sometimes emanate from the Starlite Drive-in; from Mr Petamber Persaud about the suffering inflicted on the citizens of his part of Campbellville by a fish shop in Drury Lane; from residents living in the vicinity of the Sunday Seawall Lime; and specifically in the latter connection, from Ms Eileen Cox about a Digicel Promotion last Sunday, stand out.

Where the last-mentioned is concerned, one can only marvel that a large company like Digicel regarded it as being in its interest in the first place to alienate such a substantial number of citizens in the residential areas nearby. One can only presume it decided to write them off as potential customers. On a different note, as Ms Cox said, a business entity the size of Digicel has a corporate social responsibility, and if it wanted to promote itself would have done better taking “Christmas cheer” to the underprivileged children of this country.

The health dangers of noise pollution are well known, and have been recited on many occasions. Frequent exposure to loud noise does, of course, cause hearing loss, but since one must presume that those who attend ‘limes’ where mile-high speakers are the norm are probably already hearing impaired, they may genuinely not notice the volume. If they insist on damaging their own hearing, one must suppose that that is their right; however, they have absolutely no right to damage that of everyone else in the vicinity. Loud noise also affects those with a whole range of medical conditions, including people with heart problems, high blood pressure, or nervous complaints of one kind or another. The damage to the senses and the psyche is proportionately greater where there are babies, small children, sick persons and elderly people involved, and there must be plenty of those around in the neighbourhoods under assault from these massive sound sets.

Even if one boasts the most stalwart of constitutions, sleep deprivation caused by noise nuisance takes a huge toll. It affects alertness and the capacity to concentrate, which is obviously detrimental to schoolchildren, drivers and those engaged in any kind of work where safety is an issue. For everyone, unwanted noise and the consequent loss of sleep impair judgement and add another element of stress to an already stressful existence.

Ideally, for the sake of everyone’s health, one feels the government over time should be trying to wean the population off the addiction to music played at maximum volume. In the meantime, however, it should be looking to limit the injury to health by identifying locations where loud music can be played so it will not affect residents who are not participants in a given lime or concert or whatever. In terms of the seawall, there was vague talk some years ago about making the stretch (or part of the stretch) between Vlissengen Road and Camp Road an esplanade. There is at least a section in the middle where there are no residents nearby, and the customary speakers would cause minimal disturbance to outsiders. Apart from identified places away from built-up areas where permits for playing systems at high-decibel levels could be granted, none should be issued in or near to residential zones, and transgressors against the noise pollution law there should be rigorously prosecuted.

Of course none of that is going to happen unless the government first sets an example. At the time of writing, a concert in the Camp Street Avenue sponsored by the Ministry of Health was in the offing. We will know by today whether or not that ministry, like the Ministry of Tourism, is more concerned about circuses than about health. If it too caused noise nuisance to people living nearby, then there is little hope for us.

We are living in a situation of anarchy. The law is not worth the paper it is written on, and the beleaguered citizen has nowhere to turn for relief – not to the police and not to the Ministry of Home Affairs. One can only wonder idly what would happen if someone set up a sound system in that particular residential area favoured by government ministers and senior functionaries for their homes, and blasted them with noise. One suspects the offence would not be committed for hours on end as it is elsewhere, because the police would appear as if by magic and move the offender, if not place him before the courts.

The current problem of noise nuisance, of course, is symptomatic of the larger problem of the breakdown of a rule-governed society. The more the government passes laws which it has no intention of implementing or lacks the capacity to implement, the more it loses control and respect. In order to function, societies demand a measure of orderliness, and if an administration cannot provide the framework for that, it becomes an irrelevancy, and people increasingly will ignore its pronouncements and do their own thing. A government which countenances any of its ministries breaking the law openly and with impunity, effectively has ceased to govern in the real sense of that term.

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