In April 2017, Kathmandu Valley was declared a ‘no horn’ zone. Traffic police fined vehicles honking unnecessarily, and even removed pressure horns on buses and trucks. The police also penalized bikers who modified their silencers to create loud sound. Within a few months, traffic noise was reduced significantly and valley streets became quieter and more disciplined.
But four years down the line, traffic noise is increasing again. Although there has been no recent research on the valley’s noise pollution level, the CBS’s Environment Statistics of Nepal 2019 shows that areas with heavy traffic, commercial areas, residential areas, and industrial areas inside Kathmandu valley all exceed their respective WHO noise pollution limits. Most places in the valley exceed the WHO limit of 70 decibels A (dBA) for ‘High Traffic Area’. For instance, the Balaju industrial area records a maximum of 78 dBA at day-time.
The WHO threshold for high noise pollution is 90 (dBA), after which the noise can cause serious harm to human health. But the harm can set in even at lower levels.
Research apart, the general public feels an increase in noise pollution. The ApEx office, at Teenkune, is exposed to deafening sounds of vehicles—specially buses and trucks—all day, every day.
At Teenkune chowk, Surakshya Shrestha waits for her bus, visibly perplexed by the loud traffic noise. Originally from Dolakha, the recent high school graduate is in Kathmandu to pursue higher studies. “I came here to meet a friend and am waiting to take a bus back to my residence at Sukedhara,” Shrestha says. “As I wait, I see buses and microbuses compete to overtake each other and honking so loudly, and so often. I am not used to this.”
Public health professional Shashi Dev Shah is mainly concerned about the effects of noise pollution on students. “Prolonged noise exposure can have long term effects on our physical and mental health, and in Kathmandu we get exposed to them pretty young,” Shah says. “Most academic institutions here are located in the busiest areas, which might be a problem in the long run.”
Citing a report published in the International Journal of Recent Scientific Research in 2019, Shah says most students in the valley are exposed to noise pollution on a daily basis. The joint report of Raju Chauhan and Sijar Bhatta states that “along with the problems like air pollution, water pollution and solid waste, noise pollution is emerging as a threat to the inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley.”
The research shows over 90 percent educational institutions in Kathmandu Valley are in noisy areas that exceed both national and WHO noise thresholds. Institutions located in high traffic areas have highest noise exposures. The six-hour average noise level for educational institutions located in different zones are as follows: High Traffic (70.1 dBA), Commercial (66.2 dBA), Low Traffic (65.7 dBA), and Residential (56.3 dBA).
Mangala Devi Secondary School at Gaushala (101 dBA) was found to have the highest noise level of all education institutions, followed by Pashupati Multiple Campus in Chabahil (100.4 dBA) and Trichandra Campus at Ghantaghar (99.9dBA). The Tribhuvan University central campus at Kirtipur (22.4 dBA) recorded the lowest noise level.
“It is surprising that our academic institutions open and operate mostly in high traffic and commercial areas,” Shah says. “How can students concentrate in studies when they have to listen to loud horns and traffic noise all day?” Easier way to control noise is to restrict horns in the valley, Shah suggests.
Dr Leison Maharjan, ENT specialist at Patan Hospital, warns of the repercussions of prolonged exposure to noise pollution. “The effects of noise pollution, or loud noise, vary according to its intensity and duration,” Maharjan says, “Generally, for the human ear, noise level above 80dBA can be harmful. You can see noise as a toxin, the effects of which are in proportion to the intensity and duration of exposure.”
Giving example of a field visit to a hydropower project where most workers complained of hearing problems, Maharjan adds that noise pollution can cause many such occupational hazards. “The direct health effects are ear-related problems like tinnitus and hearing loss, which can be temporary or permanent,” Maharjan adds. “Noise pollution can also lead to anxiety, irritability, stress, poor concentration, mental fatigue, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases.”
ApEx contacted the Ministry of Health and Population to inquire about the problem. Its spokesperson, Dr Jageshwar Gautam, gave a nonchalant reply. With the same energy he displayed during the government’s televised coronavirus briefings, Gautam informed that the ministry does consider noise pollution in Kathmandu a problem and also sees vehicle horns as the major culprit. But then he says it is not for the ministry to solve the problem.
When asked why the ‘no-horn’ policy exists on paper but has been poorly implemented, Gautam replies, “You should put someone out on the street and have them report the honking. Sensitize people and other stakeholders. We are not a regulatory body, and this is out of our jurisdiction.”
The Metropolitan Traffic Police Division is more receptive of our queries. Its spokesperson SP Shyam Krishna Adhikari explains that right after the lockdown, there was a series of political protests and gatherings as well as VIP movements. That occupied the limited human resources of the traffic police.
“We understand that vehicle horns are a major source of noise pollution in the national capital,” Adhikari says. “We are already trying to dissuade motorists from blaring horns haphazardly and are starting an operation against honking starting this week. We will also be looking out for modified vehicles that cause loud noise”.
Sushila Dahal, 42, Housewife
We need peace and silence everywhere. And on the roads, we need to be extra careful. Honking disturbs and irritates people, which actually contributes to accidents.
Laxman Ghimire, 44, Teacher
I think reducing noise pollution will help cure many problems. These loud horns are making people short-tempered.
Binayak Bhattarai, 24, Student
I don’t think ‘no-horn’ refers to a total ban on honking. Reducing unnecessary noise should be the prime concern. Does anyone ever think of the traffic police’s mental health?
Kamal Karmacharya, 45, Microbus driver
I don’t get the idea of declaring the valley a ‘no-horn’ zone. You can’t apply it. Instead, restrict the rule to certain areas and make people follow it.
Sujita Koirala, 47, Credit cooperative officer
My office is located right beside a wide, straight road and there is no need to honk there. Traffic lights control the jam. Still, I listen to bellowing horns all the time. The commotion is so loud, we can’t even talk on the phone. People should themselves be aware of the disturbance they are causing.
Rohit Chaudhary, 22, Tootle/Pathao rider
I understand that blowing horns stresses people on the road but sometimes it becomes imperative to avoid accidents.
Sakar Lamsal, 31, Engineer
Nepalis sometimes behave like a herd of sheep. If one starts to bleat (honk), everyone follows, without a reason. It is a matter of common sense.
Kamala Karki, 28, Traffic constable
Blow horn only in emergency. Otherwise, it is illegal and we might penalize you.
Samundra Karki, 26, Engineering student
The extremist policy of ‘no-horn’ is absurd. The goal should be reducing horn-use, not its ban. Vehicles have horns for a reason.
Rabi Shrestha, 42, Taxi driver
People, mainly youth, walk carelessly on the streets, often with headphones on. This usually invites accidents. In these situations, honking can’t be avoided. But the ‘no horn’ policy can be partially applied.