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Towering trouble

The DoT will start a random check of the radiation levels of telecom towers all over the country, though the extent of the damage is still being debated. Sanjib Kr Baruah writes.

delhi Updated: Nov 15, 2010 23:00 IST
Sanjib Kr Baruah

On a hot May afternoon two years ago, Babla Saikia’s body was found hanging from a leather belt tied to the terrace railing in a third-floor rented apartment in congested west Delhi. At 21, the young martial arts-practising student had decided to take his own life.

His father, an engineer, had much to say: “Always healthy and cheerful, my son started having mental problems after shifting to this house. He said whenever he stepped inside, he felt extremely chaotic. He wanted to shift out.”

On the terrace loomed a huge mobile phone tower.

While a distraught father’s lament can be glossed over, there has been very little to separate fact from fiction on the dangers that mobile phone towers can possibly pose. Something evident in the ministerial corridors too. On April 29, just-resigned telecom minister A Raja had informed the Rajya Sabha: “No medical inference has been drawn that this radioactivity (from telecom towers) is injurious to health.”

From Tuesday, teams from the Telecom Engineering and Resource Monitoring of the telecommunications ministry will embark on a nationwide random testing of radiation emitted by mobile phone towers. Severe penalties are being envisaged for radiation beyond permitted limits.

FACT AND FICTION

The American Cancer Society website says there is very little evidence to link health hazards with mobile towers. Theoretically, the energy level of radiofrequency (RF) waves is relatively low; RF waves have long wavelengths, which means it is unlikely that the energy from RF waves could be concentrated enough to affect individual cells in the body; even if RF waves were somehow able to affect cells in the body at higher doses, the level of RF waves present at ground level is very low.

Says Rajan S Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India: “We have submitted various documents and 15 different reports to the government from studies worldwide. We have conducted empirical studies on our own, even measured radiation levels. Vested interests are spreading these myths.”

“There is a fear psychosis based on the heresy that mobile phone towers pose immense health hazards. But where is the scientific backing? We are facing a lot of resistance in expanding our network in areas like rural Goa,” says Aloke Kaul, chief general manager (Maharashtra-Goa circle), Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.

Electromagnetic emissions of mobile towers in India are governed by the guidelines drawn from the recommendations of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

Says Dr PR Goundan of the Centre for Excellence in Wireless Technology, Madras IIT: “Extensive studies based on ICNIRP norms that guide government’s policies reveal that radiation levels are absolutely within safety norms. But as far as biological and genetic impacts are concerned, conclusions can be drawn only over a period of time.”

But ICNIRP has taken into consideration only the thermal radiation and not non-thermal radiation. ICNIRP’s website even has a disclaimer: “ICNIRP is only intended to protect the public against short-term gross heating effects and NOT against ‘biological’ effects.”

Says Girish Kumar from IIT, Mumbai: “There are several hundreds of international studies on this issue showing increased risk of cancer, DNA damage, immune system degradation, reduction in melatonin levels, irreversible infertility, etc. with prolonged continuous exposure. It can also cause a lot of mental problems.”

“People in India have not realised the gravity of the problem. Cell operators keep saying there is no harm; the public is in the dark about the matter,” says Kumar, who has been studying health hazards of such towers for the last nine years and claims to have many case studies to prove his point.

Says Dr RN Bhardwaj, executive director, Telecom Users Group of India: “International reports are being kept under the carpet.”

“India’s case is all the more dangerous as telecom service providers have outsourced their network deployment and towers to third parties; nowhere in the world does this happen. So, one cell tower is being shared by more than 3-4 service providers.”

Meanwhile, a nodal committee led by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has just been appointed to study the impact of mobile towers. “We will not be guided by what research abroad says. We want to determine the specific impact on Indians,” says a member of the committee.

Even as the debate rages, there is nothing much to comfort Babla Saikia’s father. “We were just too late,” he mutters.

The problem and its extent
There have been complaints of mental illnesses due to radiation

There is no complete solution to the tower problem as it has to be reconciled with development needs. But the government should recognise the potential dangers and lowers exposure limits.

A larger number of small antennas emitting low radiation levels need to be installed.

India has adopted the highest (worst) radiation exposure limits and even these limits are not being regulated properly.

There are mobile towers everywhere — residential roof tops, schools, hospitals unlike abroad.

Many roof top antennas are not even at a height of 2 m whereas they should be at a minimum safe distance of 30 metres.

People restrict mobile communication to short essential calls and prefer landlines or text message when they can.

Towering trouble

450,000 telecom towers in India, with their concentration thicker in urban centres.

730 mn mobile phone users in India, with 15 million being added every month.

12 players in the mobile telecom tower business in India with the biggies being Indus Towers, Reliance Infra, GTL Infrastructure, etc.

Towers are installed after clearances from the telecom ministry, municipal authorities and local bodies.