In 2017 there were 417 reports of noise nuisance and up to November 2018, there were 300. And those were just the cases which were reported. Every day citizens in various parts of the country are assailed by noise emanating from their neighbours which they do not complain about formally, because they are convinced the authorities will not act in response to their concerns, or even if they do, those actions will be ineffectual.
Ministers of Home Affairs – or in the latest incarnation, Public Security – come and go, and on assuming office all of them promise action on noise nuisance. In the initial flurry of activity which characterises most new ministers, various measures are taken, but then as often happens in this corner of the continent, everything fizzles out and reverts back to what it was earlier. Even action taken further down in their incumbency after there has been time for reflection does not appear to be any more effective.
Minister Khemraj Ramjattan has been no exception; at the end of last year he was quoted as saying: “We want to take the profit out of this illegal [noise nuisance] activity and that means … we want to revoke some of the licences of those bars that play loud music, music carts or hucksters walking down the street or cars of people, or probably it might be better to enforce the law by taking away their equipment.” His predecessor in the post under the previous administration was not impressed: “All the talk about ‘revoking licences of bars,’ ‘taking away equipment’ and ‘taking the profits out of this illegal activity’ sounds bullish and combative for all the wrong reasons,” Mr Clement Rohee wrote in a letter to this newspaper in December last year. He said that with this approach “counter productivity” beckoned.
Mr Rohee, it seems, favours a “softer” and more “consultative and inclusive” modus operandi, and cited, among other things, an agreement between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the General Minibus Association in April 2009 that “no amplification of sound [would be] permitted … in minibuses or hire cars.” The ministry also steered through Parliament an amendment to the Motor Vehicle and Road Traffic Act banning the playing of loud music in public transportation. “Minibus owners and taxi drivers complied much to the satisfaction of the travelling public,” wrote the former minister.
Then there was the matter of the music carts. He related how the National Commission for Law and Order (now disbanded) had held consultations with the proprietors of such carts, and that it had been agreed they should become licensed as hucksters; that they operate from designated locations; that they would wear a uniform; and that they should provide headphones for customers wishing to purchase a CD. “Some owners of music carts complied,” he said, although “others resisted and had to be engaged on an on-going basis.”
Judging from what he wrote, Mr Rohee had little time for the capacity of the EPA to make much impact on the noise pollution problem. His view was that a number of laws would have to be amended if the police were to collaborate with the EPA and be associated with measuring decibels. He said that inter-agency meetings were held with a view to harmonizing laws and regulations and drafting legislation, but that in the end the consultations were not conclusive. His recommendation to Mr Ramjattan was the previous government’s ‘name and shame’ campaign in the local media which he described as “highly successful”.
Exactly how ‘successful’ the name and shame campaign was, is very much a moot point, since the general public impression is that there has been no abatement in the noise nuisance situation over many years. There were certainly enough complaints about it towards the end of the former minister’s tenure as much as towards the beginning, and there was the horrendous case of the Station Street, Kitty, resident who was doused with acid in what she believed was retaliation for speaking out against noise nuisance from a bar allegedly owned by a senior policeman.
And then there is the matter of music being played in minibuses, which despite any agreement with the Minibus Association and a change in the law continues unabated, save for the periodic – and very occasional, it must be added − police campaign. But that should come as no surprise, since the other traffic laws are not enforced either. The music cart vendors similarly have cheerfully ignored any undertakings they may have given, and have never ceased to operate in their customary fortissimo fashion in the central streets of the city.
Minister Ramjattan, as indicated above, is doing no better than his precursor. Towards the end of last year more than 50 ranks were exposed to a one-day Noise Management course conducted by the EPA to “understand the various compartments under which certain rules and regulations apply”, according to a statement from the Department of Public Information. Armed with their training and some new equipment, they were sent out to test it at various nightspots, including Station Street, Kitty, a notorious site for noise pollution.
“I want policemen to know… about the laws and how they should be enforced,” Mr Ramjattan was quoted as saying, adding that once all officers employed the increased training opportunities offered there would be law and order in the society.
We are now in May, some six months later, and either the officers did not benefit from the training, they do not understand how to use the new equipment they were issued, or the authorities simply don’t think noise nuisance is the kind of complaint they should bother about. Certainly the Minister of Public Security does not appear of a mind to follow up on his fine words. There we have the residents of Station Street, no less, desperate for some relief from the loud music being blasted by Roopa’s Bar. They wrote to the Minister on January 15 this year, but since then the situation has not changed. Furthermore, as of three days ago, they still had not received any correspondence from the ministry. That in itself is unacceptable. Stabroek News was told on visiting the ministry that the letter had been received and passed on to the Minister’s personal assistant; however, she was not available at the time to give a comment. It all sounds like a depressingly familiar story.
One worker in the street told this newspaper that they had been in contact with the EPA, and would be working with them to help resolve the matter. Whether they can accomplish what former minister Clement Rohee said they couldn’t do and what the Ministry of Public Security and the police seemingly can’t do, remains to be seen. She also said they had been sending letters to the authorities since 2015, and they had been advised they might have to go to court.
Not unexpectedly one of the proprietors of the bar denied that music was played there at an extreme level. We reported him conceding that it would be very loud on Friday nights when they hosted Karaoke sessions, but that during the week the cacophony came from customers who had music boxes in their vehicles and would open the doors and raise the volume. That too is illegal, and is something the police should be able to deal with.
So what is the problem? Why is it that neither the police nor the relevant ministry over several administrations has been able to deal with the endemic noise nuisance disease?
Why have we had all these consultations, changes in the law, new equipment and training sessions, and yet there is no on-the-ground improvement? What can be said is that if they can’t deal with the issue in one limited location like Station Street, Kitty, then they surely can’t address it in its larger aspects throughout the country at large. As such, Mr Ramjattan’s dream of law and order will remain just that, a dream. The authorities here should recognise that in more orderly societies an incapacity to enforce the law would be regarded as a confession of incompetence.