Sumaira’s interest in environment was first translated into action when, following a request for help from local fishermen, she cleared encroachments on a public village road by a Mumbai Industrialist in 1998. Thousands of fishermen in Alibag District supported the campaign. She undertook Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court which was appealed in the Supreme Court against Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations and a proposed casino at Mandwa by another Mumbai businessman.
Since 2003 Sumaira has worked, individually and through ‘Awaaz Foundation’, on environmental issues such as noise pollution, illegal sand mining, illegal construction, mining in bio diverse forests, marine pollution and oil spills, eco friendly festivals, protection of trees and on civic issues such as laws on tobacco sale to children. She convened an NGO movement for protection of public-interest activists, ‘Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists’ (MITRA).
Noise Pollution: Awaaz Foundation’s pioneering Noise Pollution campaign, which started in 2002, has overwhelming public support in Mumbai and is gradually spreading to other parts of India including Benares, Bangalore, Pune and other cities with vigorous citizen-led campaigns.
Sumaira filed public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court against relaxation of the Noise Rules to permit use of loudspeakers unto 15 days a year unto midnight in 2002 along with the Bombay Environmental Action Group and two doctors. She organized the first two major seminars on noise pollution in 2004 and 2006. Awaaz Foundation was registered in February 2006. In 2007, Awaaz Foundation filed a second PIL against noise from traffic and construction and for noise mapping of Mumbai. The Petitions were finally heard and disposed off in August 2016. Sumaira filed a Contempt Petition against two Police officers when the police themselves violated the conditions of Silence Zones of the Court Order. The Petition was disposed of by the Court after the State Government f Maharashtra filed an Undertaking not to permit any loudspeaker in Silence Zones. Compliance hearings of this Order continue on a regular basis and have resulted in noise mapping of all 27 major cities of Maharashtra by NEERI, decibel meters at all police stations, noise mitigation measures for the Mumbai Metro construction, and a year-long awareness campaign against honking in partnership with the Maharashtra Government. In 2018, the Government of Maharashtra banned the use of DJs during festivals and the noise levels from all festivals reduced drastically from pervious years.
Awaaz Foundation networks with citizens’ groups and other NGOs to achieve maximum impact and has organized volunteers, offered support, legal advice and education to people suffering from excessive environmental noise. It has independently monitored noise levels of loudspeakers, construction equipment, traffic and firecrackers and interacted with the Authorities to ensure their support and co-operation. Due to pressure, the Mumbai Police set up a dedicated phone number to tackle citizens’ noise complaints and are strictly implementing timings and other requirements of the Noise Rules. In 2018, citizens' complaints increased in number and the anti-noise pollution campaign was acknowledged to have become a participatory citizens' movement endorsed by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra when he declared 2018 to be a year against noise pollution.
Educational programs and publications for schools, colleges, citizens groups and authorities empowered to implement the laws were also conducted through collaboration with other NGOs and citizens’ groups and were so successful that the State Government has undertaken similar programs in all municipal schools throughout Maharashtra State in 2010 and thereafter.
Periodic tests of noise levels from firecrackers were undertaken jointly with the Mumbai Police and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) since 2004; the first ‘No Horn Day’ in the country along with the Mumbai Traffic Police in April 2008; and measurement of noise and air pollution along with MPCB at the ‘Car Free Day’ in February 2010.
Awaaz Foundation has also carried out tests to determine decibel level of traffic, traffic junctions in the city, Western and Central line railways and done a comparative study of noise levels around hospitals in London and Mumbai.
Noise measurements during festival seasons and for various other events throughout the year were also undertaken since 2003. Based on primary data generated by Awaaz Foundation, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) accepted all their suggestions to amend the national Noise Pollution Rules in January 2010 and set up a ‘National Noise Monitoring Network’ in 7 cities across the country.
Along with other citizens’ groups, noise measurements of helicopters, a signature campaign and a street play against private helipads in Mumbai was conducted which resulted in the MoEF banning private helipads on residential buildings of Mumbai.
Mumbai was the only Indian city to record a decrease in noise levels during Diwali for the past several years due to increased awareness through Awaaz Foundation ‘s awareness campaigns in partnership with several leading media outlets. In 2016, the Maharashtra State Environment Secretary and the Mumbai Police Commissioner thanked citizens of Mumbai for making anti-noise pollution a citizens' movement.
In September 2013, Awaaz Foundation built a participatory citizens’ campaign to construct a citizens’ noise map of Mumbai using a free App called Noise Watch downloadable onto any smartphone or iPhone and capable of sending noise readings directly onto a GIS map. The campaign was immediately successful and spread to other parts of the country like Pune, Navi Mumbai and Thane almost immediately. It also spurred the MMRDA to conduct a formal Noise Mapping Study of Mumbai for use in the Control Plan and Development Control Rules for Mumbai presently under preparation.
Following Orders in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Awaaz Foundation, the State Government of Maharashtra commissioned noise barriers, noise mapping studies and policy change including a draft Firecracker Rules and notified Silence Zones in Mumbai. The Government restricted decibel level of horns and began an enforcement campaign against honking. The Bombay High Court also ordered that the Noise Mapping should be extended to all cities of Maharashtra and that the noise map of Mumbo should be integrated in its Development Plan.
Awaaz Foundation carried out several awareness campaigns in Mumbai and partnered with other NGOs and media houses throughout the country. The campaigns included #GetWellSoonMumbai #TellTheDriver #HornFlu #Time For Action with the Mumbai and Thane Police, #GodsAgainstNoise with AURED and Sanskar India Foundation, Noise Annoys with Times of India, #AwaazBandh with SPROUTS and others, #HornVrat with the Government of Maharashtra and the Autorickshaw Union.
Sand mining: Sand is a finite natural mineral under severe threat, yet. most people express surprise that sand mining is a major environmental concern which may threaten the existence of over 70% of the world’s beaches, and also contribute to major land erosion, compromise water security, affect climate, etc.
Sand is used for almost every type of industrial application from building to glass to computers, and yet is considered inexhaustible, Sand fuels the construction boom on which India’s growth spurt is based. After China and the United States, India has the world’s largest construction business which accounts for 9 percent of its 2 trillion USD economy. The country plans to invest 500 billion USD in building up its infrastructure and 500 million USD has been earmarked for the construction industry alone (R Lakshmi, 2012, The Washington Post).
Sumaira Abdulali first raised awareness about illegal sand mining in India in 2002 and has opposed illegal sand mining in Maharashtra through advocacy and legal interventions. These initiatives have compelled policy change for the entire State of Maharashtra and at the Union Government level to tighten and implement laws against sand mining in environmentally sensitive areas. They have also facilitated experimental and/or commercial building and infrastructure projects using alternate technologies without natural sand and/or recycled sand extracted from debris (another major environmental hazard).
In the Convention of Biodiversity hosted by India in 2012, sand-mining was raised for the first time as one of the most severe threats to coastal environments at a side event by Awaaz Foundation and the Bombay Natural History Society. The main Convention, although coastal issues was one of the top focus areas, contained no mention of sand mining at all. Conceding the seriousness of the issues, individual members of UN bodies represented at the Convention acknowledged that sand mining did not form any part of their numerous studies and documents on coastal environment and sand was not covered under any International Convention in spite of trade between countries (such as sand imported into India from Pakistan or into Singapore from Indonesia.) Sand mining is an increasing menace all over the world, as documented by Denis Delestrac’s ‘Sand Wars’, premiered in Paris in May 2013 (in which Awaaz Foundation participated with inputs about the Indian sand mining mafia). Allegedly, Singapore has expanded it’s coastline through illegal sand mining in Indonesia and Cambodia, and as a direct result, Indonesia has lost entire islands. Sand mining in the USA has resulted in erosion and collapse of beachfront houses and properties. According to some experts, more than 70% of the world’s beaches are under threat of vanishing completely. Many already require repeated artificial replenishment of sand taken from other beaches and, in turn, degrading those. Sumaira Abdulali has advocated an inclusion of sand mining in the Agenda of the next Conference on Biological Diversity, Conference of Parties 12 in 2014 through her letter to Union Environment Minister Shri Jayanthi Natarajan. and through a representation to the Secretariat of the Convention.
In 2014, the United Nations Environmental Programme issued an Advisory against sand mining and International trade in sand. Several documentary films, television, radio and print features have been published, featuring the illegal sand mining mafias in India and Awaaz Foundation's work. These include The Guardian, WIRED, Reuters, Der Zeit, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Frontline and many others. In 2018, the UNEP conducted its first ever round table on sand mining in Geneva and invited Sumaira as a keynote speaker.
Licensing of Sand barges: Sand barges, operating from the coast of Raigad through Mumbai Harbour into Mumbai and Navi Mumbai were operating without any licenses or checks until 2010. Information obtained under the Right to Information Act and Awaaz Foundation’s representations to Union and State Home and Environment Ministers regarding the environmental, safety and security hazards of unregulated barges entering Mumbai resulted in grounding of such barges until a system was put into place. Subsequent policy changes in the sand mining policy of Maharashtra ensured regulation of sand barges.
Participation in CBD CoP 11: Awaaz Foundation participated in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity CoP11 through a side event on the effects of sand mining on biodiversity, in partnership with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) on 9th October 2012 in Hyderabad. This was the first time the impact on biodiversity if sand mining were discussed in an International Forum. Awaaz Foundation also advocated inclusion of sand mining in CoP12 through representations to the Ministry of Environment and Forests New Delhi and to the Secretariat of the CBD. Sand mining has been listed in the section ‘New and Emerging Issues” for discussions at the technical Committee SBSTTA prior to inclusion in CoP12, the first time this issue has been taken up at International level.
Mining in bio-diverse forests: Awaaz Foundation succeeded in having the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg Wildlife corridor declared as eco sensitive on 27th September 2013 after three years of hearings in the Bombay High Court. In 2010, 49 mining leases were sanctioned by the Maharashtra State Government. Awaaz Foundation organized representations of 22 villages through legal and advocacy programs to ensure public scrutiny of their demand for ‘Environmentally Sensitive Area’ (ESA) Status, to conclusively ensure no activity which destroys the sensitive nature of this bio-diversity hotspot, including mining. Awaaz Foundation worked to support and strengthen local opposition to open-cast mining in the biodiverse wildlife corridor of Sawantwadi-Dodamarg in Sindhudurg District of Maharahstra where officially recorded tigers and leopards thrive alongside myriad indigenous flora and fauna and which is a catchment area for neighboring Goa State and for numerous villages supporting traditional agrarian livelihoods. In recognition of its special nature, portions of the Western Ghats area have been accepted for UNESCO ’World Bio Diversity Hot Spot’ status on an application from the Government of India, however, Sawantwadi-Dodamarg was not protected until the Bombay High Court order in September 2013.
Protection of Trees: Public Interest Litigation filed by Awaaz Foundation for better functioning of Mumbai’s Tree Authority has resulted in Tree Rules being notified for the first time for urban areas of Maharashtra State and several administrative improvements in the Tree Authority of Mumbai.
Eco-friendly festivals: Apart from measuring noise during festival seasons for many years, Awaaz Foundation also tested colours used for festivals such as ‘Holi’ and Ganpati. Air pollution and heavy metal content of firecrackers was also tested. Several samples were found to contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead., besides other air pollutants. The results were sent to the Government and a request to notify standards for festival colours is pending.
Attacks on activists: Sumaira was physically attacked twice during sand mining site inspections and hospitalized the first time, in 2004. She convened a movement to unify NGOs ‘Movement against Intimidation, Threat and Revenge against Activists’ (MITRA) pressed for justice for threatened public-interest activists along with systems to ensure their safety to the Bombay High Court, Government and Police. The Police were compelled to issue notifications and form a participatory Committee with known activists. MITRA;s founder Chairman was the late Mr B G Deshmukh, retired Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India.
Tobacco: Sumaira filed public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court and succeeded in compelling the Union Government to notify laws banning tobacco sale close to educational institutions.
During this period, Sumaira has received numerous Awards for her environmental work including the Olive Crown Green Crusader Award 2015, the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice 2010 along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and others, and was also elected a lifetime Ashoka Foundation Fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2008. She is an elected member of the Governing Council of Asia’s largest and oldest conservation NGO, the BNHS since 2008 and was elected Honorary Secretary from 2012-2014. She has organized 2 major Seminars on Noise Pollution and attended and spoken at several other events.
Several of her original articles have been published in various newspapers and magazines. She has had several TV appearances and extensive national and international Press coverage including in The Times London, BBC, Der Zeit Germany, Le Monde, the Washington Post, the Guardian and has been featured in national and International magazines such as Outlook, Femina, India Today, moneylife, livemint, Governance now, Business Standard and WIRED.
A documentary film on Noise Pollution commissioned by the MMRDA is under production and another film was aired by the national television network 'Doordarshan'. 'In Pursuit of Silence' a film on noise pollution in which she participated was shown in International film festivals in various parts of the world including the UK and the US. Two full length documentary films on sand mining, in which she participated, were recently premiered in France and Germany by the French producers ‘Arte’; one of them, ‘Sand Wars’ directed by Denis Delestrac, had record viewership for any documentary film over any format and resulted in possible policy change in the European Union. Another film 'Line in the Sand' was broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Company and Al Jazeera in many countries all over the world.
- International Advertising Associations's Green Crusader of the Year 'Olive Crown Award' 2015
- TACCI 'Pillar of Hindustanee Society' Award 2015
- Environmental Club of India World Environment Day 'Paryavaran Gaurav Award' 2015
- Young Enviromentalists Programme Trust Womens' Day Award 2012
- Sanctuary Asia 'Spotlight' 2010
-Harmony Foundation's 'Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice' 2010
-Moneylife Foundation's Women Day Award 2010
-Ashoka Foundation Lifetime Fellow elected 2008
-Public Concern for Governance Trust 'Naveleen Kumar Award '2005
-Rotary Club of Bombay 'Taru Lalwani Award for Protection of the Environment' 2005
-Bombay Environmental Action Group Award 2004