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Why Sonu Nigam’s argument against loudspeaker is economically valid

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Everyone have free speech but the moment they “practise” it;  in our nation, they face the flak for doing so. And, to add to our woes, we seem to have an army of (paid) trolls patrolling the internet, pouncing on unwitting citizens. Whether you agree with Sonu’s tweet is a secondary matter but what is more important is that he has every right to speak fearlessly. If you shun his opinion today; there are chances that tomorrow someone else will shun your voice. This problem gets circular with every step we undertake without thinking rationally of the social consequences.

Like you, Sonu Nigam is also blessed with individual rights. If he is disturbed by the “unaccountable” loudspeaker near his place, it is the “responsibility” of the mosque to examine the social impact of the loudspeaker (in the first place). Unfortunately, the whole loudspeaker saga stands politically hijacked. This article attempts to make an economic argument with reason instead of emotions.

In a country like India, personal space in public places is hard to come by because property rights are not fundamental human rights. Property rights are merely legal rights, today. This premise is important for everyone to understand because we are economically dealing with tangible and intangible functions in our daily life. Azaan loudspeaker should be backed by the property rights but our constitution does not guarantee this, therefore, the “burden of proof” of secularism credentials is endowed with the India’s constitution than with Sonu Nigam or Mosque (in this episode). To decode this premise, at what point should loudspeaker be permitted to enforce its noise on others? Is the loud noise socially consented by the people around the mosque? This is where Sonu Nigam falls in the picture because he is disturbed by the “early morning” Azaan (prayer).

Surely, economist Ronald Coase would also defend Sonu Nigam in this case. He would suggest that noise pollution fits the typical definition of an externality, since noise pollution from a factory, a loud garage band, or, say, a wind turbine potentially imposes a cost on people who are neither consumers nor producers of these items. (Technically, this externality comes about because it’s not well-defined who owns the noise spectrum.). For example: In the case of Azaan loudspeaker, it’s efficient to let the loudspeaker make noise if the value of operating the loudspeaker is greater than the noise cost imposed on those who live near the mosque. On the other hand, it’s efficient to shut the loudspeaker if the value of operating the loudspeaker is less than the noise cost imposed on nearby residents. Since the potential rights and desires of the loudspeaker and Sonu Nigam are clearly in conflict, it is entirely possible that the two parties will end up in court to figure out whose rights take precedence. In this instance, the court could either decide that the mosque has the right to operate at the expense of the nearby households, or it could decide that the households have the right to forcefully tolerate the Azaan at the expense of the mosque.

Coase’s main thesis is that the decision that is reached regarding the assignment of property rights has no bearing on whether the loudspeakers continue to operate in the area as long as the parties can bargain without cost. Why is this? Let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s efficient to have the loudspeakers operating in the area, i.e. that the value to the mosque of operating the loudspeaker is greater than the cost imposed on the households. Put another way, this means that the mosque would be willing to pay the households more to stay in a community than the households would be willing to pay mosque to shut down the loudspeakers.

If the court decides that the households have a right to stay quiet, the mosque will probably turn around and compensate the households in exchange for letting the loudspeakers operate. Because the loudspeakers are worth more to the mosque than quiet is worth to the households there is some offer that will be acceptable to both parties, and the loudspeakers will keep running. On the other hand, if the court decides that the mosque has the right to operate the loudspeakers, the mosque will continue to play Azaan loudly and no money will change hands. This is simply because the households aren’t willing to pay enough to convince the mosque to play Azaan softly.

In summary, the assignment of rights in our example above didn’t affect the ultimate outcome once the opportunity to bargain was introduced, but the property rights did affect the transfers of money between the two parties. Instead of giving a political or communal dialogue to the whole debate, it is in the logical interest of mankind to develop an economic sense of the discourse.

Reference: Introduction to Coase theorem

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