Widespread deafness is a major problem for the villagers of Santhali, in Kalchini Block of Jalpaiguri district of the Northeast Indian State, West Bengal.
This deafness strikes everyone, from children to old ones in this hamlet, who enjoyed seeing the flight of airforce planes and fighter-aircraft (especially, Mig-21, Mig-27, Ground Attack Fighters and some Mig-23UB)s, when they soar in the sky over their heads. Unfortunately, this great spectacle has made them all deaf. From newborn to old aged, all the people in this area suffer from deafness.
“At present, the number has crossed the limit and reached more than 2 to 3 thousand. Now it seems the entire village has turned into ‘a village of the deaf’. Like this village, other villages, like Madhya Santhali, Pachim Santhali, East Santhali, Nakavola, Mandolpara, Latabari, one forest-village – Gudamdabri and the neighbouring fout tea-gardens – Beech, Santhali, Subhashini, Madhu, and three small towns, Hashimara, Kalchini and Hamiltonganj, all in the same district have the same problem.
They are all situated beside the 16 Wing War Plane training center of Indian Air Force (IAF), based at Hashimara Air Field, where the air-force training.
“Out of around 45,000 to 50,000 people of these village areas, more than 50 have gone completely deaf and at least 200 will soon completely lose their hearing, due to the roar of the daily exercise routine of the IAF fighter-aircraft. They fly low over the villages, townships and tea-estates day and night throughout the year simultaneously,” emphasized Uttam Mondal, son of 71-years-old Joshni Mondal of Mondal Para area of the village areas, who lost his hearing.
“Out of 50,000 people in the area, 35,000 to 40,000 in the poor underdeveloped Scheduled Tribe (ST) sections, are specially the victims of deafness due to the sound pollution of fighter-aircraft that soar only 200 to 250 feet above their heads. When these fighter-planes move over their heads, producing or creating sound with more than 400 to 500 decibels, the village inhabitants are unnerved. They can’t even talk to each other. No one can hear anything clearly.
Children of the village schools run away from their school, when these fighter-planes fly in the sky. Sometimes, the school day is declared over early. Not only that, the village-houses have cracks due to the shrill sound of fighter planes,” said one schoolteacher, who doesn’t want to disclose his name.
“This is a kind of repression and it has been continuing for the last 20 to 25 years and as a result, 40 to 45 percent of people in these areas have lost their hearing and have become deaf. Apart from this, at night, when the sky remains clear, the IAF come out with four to five fighter planes and begin flying very low in the sky to chase each other, which causes many times the prescribed sound limit of 60 to 65 decibels,” according to both the local doctor and the village-quack.
According to local scholars, ‘Hashimara airbase or airfield is specially noted as an air-force training ground, where a lot of fighter aircraft along with their trainees get training and it has been going on for more than 20 years. In fact, Hashimara airfield is now one of the noted airbases for imparting training to IAF. At the outset, it was a very small one and was built by the European Tea Planters for carrying out their business in the Dooars areas of West-Bengal. The planes used in this air-space were launched by the former Jam Air Company. They made it for flying between Kolkata, the capital of the state to Hashimara in order to maintain the continuity of the tea trade’.
“The situation took a new turn, when the India-China War broke out in 1962. It was during this war period, the defense authorities of India felt the necessity to build a permanent airbase here. Because of its strategic importance to the neighbouring foreign states with China, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar (Burma) and former East-Pakistan, that is, erstwhile East-Bengal, locally known as, Purb-Bangla or Purba-Banga, presently – Bangladesh and their international borders from the defense and security point of view. That is why this small airfield turned into a major and full-fledged military airfield and one of the nerve-centres of the IAF, which played an exclusive part in the war between India and Pakistan in 1971.
Indeed, this airbase was opened by the British Government to provide facilities for easy and prompt movement of their Government employees. Thus, this calm, simple and charming place gradually changed because of the strong sound pollution,” disclosed Retired Lieutenant Colonel S. C. Mondal.
As an airman, he further revealed, “From the security point of view, this airbase is very important. Because, the country, China is very close to India and it should exist keeping all the past bitter history with China. But, side-by-side, a provision for rendering medical aid to these adjacent village poor peoples should have to be made, which is good for all. However, it is better for the health of all if it flies over a certain height or keeping certain distance. So, that the roaring of the planes cannot harm anybody. Otherwise it will be better to implement soundless modern fighter planes.”
The Environment Department was notified by the director of the Public Health Centre or Primary Health Centre (PHC) of Santhali village, Dr. Sunil Basu through a letter, dated November 1996, where he clearly mentioned that everyday the fighter aircraft fly from 6 am to 11 pm emitting heart rending sound, which causes deafness among the inhabitants of these regiona. As a result, a huge number of patients come to the local PHC, suffering from deafness, heart diseases, et cetera and this number has been increasing day by day.
The president of Gram-Panchayet of the villages agreed to the authenticity of sound pollution. He added that this pollution has not only created major problems like deafness, but also mental imbalance. In some cases, pregnant women become the victims of miscarriage, early child birth, and other problems.
A clear picture of all these problems could be revealed, through a high-level enquiry by the Indian West Bengal State Government or the Indian Central Government. But so far, no one in government is paying any attention to this matter, only the Non Governmental Organizations.
A local environmental NGO group named ‘Alipurduar Nature Club’ was aware of this and first brought this matter to light in November 1996. Also, members of the ‘Alipurduar Rover & Mountaineer Club’ have previously demanded monetary help from the IAF department for the treatment of people suffering from deafness and other diseases.
The Indian West Bengal State Pollution Control Board acknowledges that this air-base causes ‘Sound Pollution’, while aircraft take off and land.
An October, 2003 statement by Air Commodore K. K. Nowhar, Air Officer Commanding, Hasimara Air Force Station noted:
“Keeping in mind China’s plans of gaining a presence in the Northeast Indian Frontier and its growing intimacy with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Ministry of Defence, Government of India is chiefly planning to provide air defence cover to the chicken-neck corridor across Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan through upgrading the strategic air base at ‘Hasimara Air Base’ to enable sophisticated fighter aircraft like ‘Mirage-2000’ and the recently acquired SU-30 MKI Air Dominance Fighter to operate from it.”
“This airfield base has two Squadrons, namely : Number-22 – “Swifts” (December, 1973) and Number-222 – “Tigersharks” (May, 1989), operating Mig-23/Mig-27 Floggers. Both squadrons provided chief assistance during the wars of 1965 and 1971. The base has capacity for about 50 MiG-27 supersonic fighter aircraft, which requires around 8,000 litres of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) and can fly at an altitude of about 51,000 feet at a speed of approximately 2,500 metres per second. The ground compatibility of the said airfield, would be upgraded in order to make it operational for more sophisticated aircraft, including SU-30 and others like LCA, ALH and HJT, which are already in the pipeline,” asserted Wing Commander S. N. Mukherjee, an Air Commodore, in May 2004.
“In effect, all sections of the village peoples of these areas clearly stated that they are not against the airstrip and air-force department and their activities. They don’t want to wind up the air force’s office from Hashimara. They desire that both the villagers and the air-force cantonment should exist side by side and work as usual and to fight against the enemies like Pakistan and China. They only hope that the IAF department should control the roaring of the aircraft through modern technologies as much as possible; so that the sound pollution may be made minimized to stop victimization of these very poor village people, who live below the poverty line,” expressed Satyen Mondal, the former president of Kalchini Panchayet Samiti of the district.
Recently, the Government of India announced they would retire this ageing fleet of over 150 ground attack fighter planes, which were inducted in the IAF in 1962. Around 700 Mig-21 (the world’s most produced fighter jet that entered service in 1959) the fighter planes produced by former Soviet Russia, were introduced at that time. Almost half have been lost in accidents.
Note: Mikoyan-Gurevich, known as : MiG, NATO reporting name : Flogger, is a swing-wing fighter aircraft, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau in the Soviet Union. It was the first Soviet fighter with a lookdown and shoot-down radar and beyond visual range missiles, and the first MiG production fighter plane to have intakes at the sides of the fuselage. Production started in 1970, with over 5,000 aircraft built. It has been included in the Indian Air Force (IAF) for combat air operations during war. IAF 16-Wing is located near Hashimara in Jalpaiguri District of the eastern Indian State, West Bengal (WB), a strategically located airbase under Indian Eastern Air Command. It has covered the air-operations of Indian states – West Bengal, Sikkim and if needed, the neighbouring country of Bhutan.