Not in my backyard: Growing resistance to new mobile towers from Delhi RWAs

Published on Oct 19, 2021 11:57 PM IST

Science says that the levels of RF waves most people are exposed to on account of proximity to a mobile tower are unlikely to be harmful. There is also, as yet, no research that shows a link between RF waves and cancer. But science is usually powerless against sentiment and emotion

It isn’t just the fixed towers that are points of contention; even the so-called cellular tower on wheels (COWs) are. And so, Delhi’s mandate under the National Broadband Mission to at least double the number of its mobile towers from 20,012 to 46,000 between 2020 and December 2022 hangs fire. (Bloomberg)
It isn’t just the fixed towers that are points of contention; even the so-called cellular tower on wheels (COWs) are. And so, Delhi’s mandate under the National Broadband Mission to at least double the number of its mobile towers from 20,012 to 46,000 between 2020 and December 2022 hangs fire. (Bloomberg)
ByParas Singh

When the result of the referendum came in at Navjeevan Vihar, it showed 120 against, and 3 for.

And so, like almost every other neighbourhood in the Capital, this leafy and quiet south Delhi enclave decided against allowing the installation of a mobile tower.

It’s an almost self-destructive fight that’s playing out across the city: everyone is hungry for bandwidth and connectivity, in fact, under the current circumstances where people are still working and studying from home, even more than they were before the pandemic struck; yet, no one wants the mobile or so-called cell towers around.

The reason: fear that radio frequency or RF waves cause cancer.

Science says that the levels of RF waves most people are exposed to on account of proximity to a mobile tower are unlikely to be harmful. There is also, as yet, no research that shows a link between RF waves and cancer. But science is usually powerless against sentiment and emotion.

Ask Ruby Makhija.

The secretary of the Navjeevan Vihar Resident Welfare Association (RWA) says most people are aware of research that says mobile towers are safe, but that there is still a lot of concern over “radiation” from such installations. There’s also fear of the value of a house next to a mobile tower going down -- perhaps a bigger fear than radiation in Delhi. She puts the onus on the companies and government agencies to educate people better.

Meanwhile, her RWA is one of 56 from south Delhi that last month petitioned the south corporation (MCD, south) on problems regarding the installation of new mobile towers while demanding a more consultative process to fix their locations.

It isn’t just the fixed towers that are points of contention; even the so-called cellular tower on wheels (COWs) are. And so, Delhi’s mandate under the National Broadband Mission to at least double the number of its mobile towers from 20,012 to 46,000 between 2020 and December 2022 hangs fire.

Across the northern part of the city, with complaints pouring in from residents and municipal councillors about the new cellular towers on wheels, the north corporation (MCD, north) decided on September 20 to put on hold the installation of any new cellular tower on wheels in its jurisdiction pending a review. Yogesh Verma, chairman of Keshavpuram , where several such complaints were flagged , says the moratorium on such installations continues. “We are trying to find locations away from residential areas where empty plots or abandoned parks can be used . We are trying to involve residents and councillors in the process.”

Verma, who is also former deputy Mayor of north MCD admits that connectivity is also important but, in the same breath, adds that the towers have a real perception problem. The result: “Everyone wants good mobile connection, no one wants a tower.” In some instances cases, residents have gathered to prevent tower installations and police have had to intervene; in other cases, residents have approached the courts.

For instance, the residents of Gayatri Apartments in Sector 9 Dwarka have objected to a mobile tower being installed in a green area behind the society citing health implications. Rajeev Suri, a Defence Colony resident who filed a petition against a tower being installed in the central park of the colony said the South Delhi Municipal Corporation was trying to build one on top of storm water drain which is illegal. “Our green areas should be sacrosanct and they are under attack. If we need new towers, government buildings should be preferred. The community has the first call on the use of space where they live and their consent should be taken. The concept of public commons does not seem to exist in our city.”

A few months ago, the standing committee of the south corporation directed officials to revise the existing policy on towers, effectively barring their installation on school and hospital buildings. The immediate trigger was a new tower in a Janakpuri hospital .

The behaviour of the corporations and councillors is understandable. Hell hath no fury like a RWA scorned, and no one wants that when municipal elections are scheduled for early next year.

Indeed, during the south corporation’s deliberations, a councillor said each tower could cost him 2000 votes.

The corporation has sought to assuage everyone’s fears, but to no avail. In August, it held a special house of councillors meeting on mobile tower related issues. SDMC mayor Mukesh Suryan says that a myth has developed about mobile towers in peoples’ minds. “This house was held with experts, doctors and officials from telecom department to educate the councillors so that they can pass on the message.”

But it’s so far been a losing battle.

Data presented to the house by the Department of Telecommunications or DoT shows that Delhi has 20,102 towers (December 2020) with an average of 13.55 towers per square km. Under the National Broadband Mission, the aim is to increase this to at least 46,000 by December 2022 with a goal to achieve 50mbps availability of broadband speed. The Cellular Operators Association of India reports that Delhi needs nearly 37,000 additional mobile towers by 2024 to resolve connectivity issues. Delhi currently has around 32,304 telecom towers, and needs approximately 69,223 by 2024, according to the association’s estimates.

Lieutenant General SP Kochhar, COAI director general, said , “The issue of inadequate indoor telecom coverage is a long-standing one for mobile users across the world. The problem has escalated in recent times, with higher data uptake during the pandemic.”

DoT is organising several awareness seminars to assuage the fears of RWAs. One such event was held last week and saw Vijay Prakash, director, DoT (Delhi sector) explaining that the World Health Organization, on the basis of its reference of at least 25,000 scientific articles published over the past 30 years, concluded that there is no evidence of health consequences due to low level of electro magnetic force (or EMF) radiations. RFs are a kind of EMF.

“India’s EMF norms are 10 times more stringent then international norms and over 43,000 base transceiver stations have been randomly checked in Delhi out of which not a single case of EMF norms violation was found,” he added. The department also operates the website www.tarangsanchar.gov.in where people can see locations of mobile towers in their areas and their current EMF levels. Additionally, complaints can also be lodged on this portal for getting a particular site inspected with a fee of 4000. “DoT field units perform tests in the presence of the applicant and report is shared with them,” Prakash explained.

Dr Vivek Tandon, additional professor of neurosurgery at AIIMS, said that there was no causal relationship between EMF radiations and brain tumour or hearing problems or disturbed sleep cycle. “People get alarmed that EMF is placed in Group 2B carcinogen (something that can cause cancer) but it only indicates that more evidence is needed in this regard. People do not know that even Aloe Vera and pickled vegetables are in Group 2B carcinogens,” he told representatives of the participating RWAs.

The RWAs were convinced that mobile towers were not generating harmful radiation, but they were not convinced about installing them in their neighbourhoods.

A senior Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) official said that mobile towers are safe and called improved mobile connectivity a “necessity”.

“This is a misconception about towers emitting harmful radiation. EMF radiation norms, which are stricter than international standards, are currently in place and people should not be afraid of new tower installations. While people require better mobile connectivity, new towers are needed for improving it,” said the official.

Atul Goel, president of URJA (United Residents Joint Action) , a collective body of RWAs, echoed the sentiment of Defence colony resident Suri and suggested that the towers be “installed in government buildings, offices, even atop community garbage collection centres (or dhalaos)” .

Mahesh Uppal, a senior telecom expert, said that mobile towers are absolutely crucial for mobile connectivity. “If we need better mobile connectivity, we need mobile towers. It is a fact that when the mobile tower is far away, the mobile handset emits more power and the risk is greater. It is better not to have a tower installation too far away from you,” he said. He added that the fear behind mobile towers was irrational as the tower radiation norms are much stricter in India than many western countries such as the US. “It is in people’s interest to focus on enforcement of these norms rather than opposing the new tower installations”

No one likes missed calls. But the problem is that they seem to like mobile towers even less.

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