Sumaira Abdulali’s story begins long before she was born.
Her great-grandmother was jailed during India’s freedom struggle. Her uncle Abbas Tyabji was chosen as Mahatma Gandhi’s immediate successor to lead the Salt Satyagraha in case Gandhiji was arrested. (After the Dandi March on May 4, 1930, Gandhiji was arrested. Tyabji, the Grand Old Man of Gujarat, was put in charge of the next phase of the Satyagraha.) Her illustrious family tree includes ornithologist Salim Ali, social activist Laila Tyabji, and the First Acting Indian Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, celebrated progressive Badruddin Tyabji, who founded the Anjuman-I-Islam University in 1874. Her mother, Rabia Futehally, was one of the first women pilots of India and co-founder of the Indian Women Pilots Association.
Today, Sumaira Abdulali’s name is synonymous with the battle against noise pollution in Mumbai, the noisiest city in India. But Sumaira has also been working against a far more dangerous enemy: illegal sand-mining barons.
It began years ago, when local fishermen came to her house in Kihim to complain about the beach being blocked by a wealthy resident. She took up the matter with the police and the collector. There were many firsts – reading the laws, filing a police complaint, being threatened. But finally, as she watched the road being cleared one day, she couldn’t believe what she had accomplished. She began to consider her options. “My children were too small for me to move to a rural area to work,” she says, “so I thought I’d do something in the city.”
But her work there wasn’t done yet.
In Kihim, she noticed trucks driving away from the beach loaded with sand. So she stopped one. She laughs when you look shocked. Sumaira is delicately built and soft-spoken. Her bravery seems astounding. “Men came out of the truck,” she says, “and showed me some permission, but I told them, ‘This is not a sand mining permission. You cannot mine here.’ For some time, the mining stopped.”
But, as she suspected, fighting crime was never a simple thing.
“The collector changed,” she says, “and once the new collector arrived, the mining started again.” This time, the illegal sand mining cartel sent her a serious warning via people in the village. She was told to stay away. Not mess with them.
Weeks later, a call came at 11:30 p.m., waking Sumaira up. The illegal sand mining trucks were back. “I didn’t really want to go,” she admits. But she was conscious that it was decisive moment. “I didn’t tell my husband and I went.” She drove off quietly in a car her husband had been prepping for a rally and was not supposed to drive. She expected to be home before anyone noticed.
What happened after she confronted the trucks was horrific. She was attacked by goons who hit her in the face, broke her teeth, and threatened her driver and cousin. As she tells the story, Sumaira unconsciously touches the part of her forehead that was injured. She still has headaches on some days.
As she was being beaten, in the middle of the village, she was repeatedly reminded that one of the men was from an influential family. No one came out to help. One by one, lights went out in the houses. “People were scared,” she explains. Her generosity is baffling and admirable.
After they’d beaten her, the goons went to work on the car. They smashed its windows, completely ruined it. She watched aghast. After spending the rest of the night at the police station, she went home in the morning to see her husband worriedly pacing the garden. “Sit down,” she told him calmly, “you’ll never believe where I was.”
Her husband listened and, not one to police his wife, he didn’t freak out. “How is the car?” he asked instead. “Well, it’s not in very good shape,” Sumaira said. She laughs at the memory. “He called the driver and told him to take it to the garage and we never spoke of it again.”
After the incident, her daughter jokingly posted on Facebook: “It’s time for my mother to stay home and cook now.”
But the woman whose journey in activism started with volunteering as a typist with her uncle “to get out of the house two or three times a week, away from changing nappies” had other plans.
Her work to curb noise pollution is what she is most famous for. Awaaz Foundation has made headway in court, in the press, and on the streets with raising awareness about noise pollution. “It was seen as an elitist issue,” Sumaira says, “but the people who suffer most are rickshaw drivers and slum dwellers who don’t have proper walls to insulate them from ambient urban noise.”
Mumbai, the noisiest city in the country, is seeing improvements. Peak noise in specific spots and average noise during festivals has decreased. Decibel levels of car horns now cannot exceed 85 decibels. 10 PILs were filed tackling different sources of noise like transport, construction, religious celebrations and festivals etc. The Horn Not Okay Please, a nationwide initiative of the government, has seen resonance in the Horn Vrat campaign here.
Awaaz Foundation raises awareness about many other issues, such as stone quarrying, protecting wildlife corridors in the western ghats, examining the proposed coastal road. There is also the Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists, or MITRA. A campaign about light pollution is in the offing, and Sumaira has also worked on converting recycling debris, plastic, and solid waste components into aggregate usable for building construction (as a substitute for sand and stone).
Today, Sumaira is at the centre of constant flurry of activity. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” she says with a smile. “People representing multiple fields of expertise call, create campaigns, legal work, volunteer free of cost… We work without an office, no staff, no donations. I have not paid a penny. I give them a few guidelines, and they mobilise their resources.”
Her advice to future heroes of the city is simple. “Don’t risk your life, but don’t sit at home,” she says,. “You hear people complain ‘why doesn’t someone do something?’ Well, get out more and do it for yourself. There is no shortage of issues in this country or in the world. Pick what is bothering you. Start working on it. Just do what is obvious.”