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TOWERING TROUBLE

Niru Bhutoria, 40, a resident of Natraj Building on Lord Sinha Road in Calcutta, has splitting headaches every other day. Other residents of the building too suffer from some ailment or another, ranging from headaches, nausea to diarrhoea. It so happens that a mobile phone tower with as many as nine antennae of different service providers has been installed on the building opposite her residence.

Convinced that their ailments had something to do with the radiation from this tower, the residents have been agitating to have it removed or checked for radiation levels. But despite their requests to various authorities, including the mobile service provider, municipal corporation, police station and the Telecom Enforcement Resource Monitoring (TERM) Cell of the department of telecommunication (DoT), nothing has been done so far.

Currently, there is no specific law to deal with mobile tower installations and their ill effects, especially radiation. “It neither falls under the Environment Act, 1986, nor the AIR Act, 1981,” says Kallol Basu, a Calcutta High Court advocate and a former counsel of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board.

So is it a free for all as far as mobile phone towers are concerned? Not so, insist the authorities. In fact, the DoT, after deliberations with the state governments and other stakeholders, recently issued guidelines to monitor mobile phone towers and ensure that the radiation from them remain within permissible limits.

But experts say that these guidelines are simply not enough and that there are loopholes in them that can be addressed only through targeted legislation. As Basu asserts, “There should be a central legislation and a complete code of law to cover this vital issue clearly and specifically.” Adds Calcutta-based environment activist Subhas Dutta, “Without any legal sanctity, mere guidelines have no teeth. A comprehensive law needs to be framed.”

Take the most important guideline, for example. The permissible radiation limits of mobile phone towers have been kept at 450 and 900 milliwatt/sqm, depending on the frequency. But the catch is that Clause IX of Section A of the guidelines states that in order to install a tower, the service provider, among other things, needs to produce a self-certificate certifying that all “general public areas around the tower will be within the safe electro-magnetic radiation exposure limit per peak traffic measurement after the antennae starts radiating”.

The self-certification clause makes the guidelines service provider-friendly, argues Santanu Chakraborty, president, Disha, an organisation that fights against mobile phone tower radiation. “Who is to ensure that proper radiation levels are being maintained,” he asks.

That job is supposed to be done by the TERM cells. According to the guidelines, these can be approached in case of violations by service providers or if one is affected by radiation. They are also required to ensure that radiation from the towers is within the permissible limits.

But the reality is that the TERM cell officers are not even present when the towers are installed. “We go by the self-certifications provided by the installers,” admits Atanu Ghosh, former deputy director-general (DDG), TERM cell, Calcutta licensing area, who is now DDG, Assam. “We also randomly check 10 per cent of the installed towers a year, besides acting on complaints lodged,” he adds.

Needless to say, with the number of mobile phone subscribers in the country galloping ahead, more and more towers are needed every day. According to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), India has five lakh mobile towers, and 60,000 to one lakh are being added every year to meet the demand.

The service providers insist that they comply with every rule in the book. “We go by the rules of the DoT and ensure that the guidelines are obeyed. The TERM cells carry frequent surprise checks to test the emission levels,” says Rajan S. Mathews, director-general, COAI.

But insiders say that what happens on the ground leaves ample room for the service providers to dodge the norms and yet escape being penalised. “We inform the operators whenever we go for tests. More often than not, we also take their instruments and equipment to check emission levels, since we don’t have our own. But we do check the calibration of the instruments,” says Ghosh.

This outrages experts who feel mobile phone service providers are simply not being held to account. “What’s appalling is that there is no way of knowing whether the service providers are lowering the emission rates in times of such checks. It’s a serious matter concerning human life and no one is bothered. Strict rules and law should be legislated and enforced,” says Girish Kumar, professor, IIT, Bombay, who has done extensive research on mobile tower radiation.

Niru Bhutoria confirms the allegations, “Just before the day the TERM cell officials were supposed to come, some men from the service providers came and changed the direction of the antennae and the radiation levels were lowered.”

Predictably, the service providers claim these guidelines are more than enough and they comply with all the rules. “Our cell tower emissions are way below the prescribed safety levels. The US permits higher levels than us and there’re no statistics to prove that has increased their cancer rates,” argues Mathews.

But scientists beg to differ. “Even 1 milliwatt/sqm of radiation is shown to have ill effects on people over a five to seven-year period. I have heard that the US has a GPS mapping system to locate every tower installation site and measure all parameters. All said and done, the limits given by DoT are still very high. There needs to be proper legislation in consultation with the concerned people and scientists to ensure a healthy environment for citizens,” says professor Kumar.

Activists also allege that guided by profit margins, the service providers often bypass guidelines and install high-powered towers instead of going for lower-powered ones, which entail larger investments. Also, most of the time, there is more than one antenna in each tower. “The guidelines are being interpreted by the service providers to suit their own convenience. There should be a law to ensure oversight at the time of installation. Also, all operational towers should be relocated and reinstated according to the rules,” says Tapas Das, a mobile tower radiation activist.

Indeed, many are at a loss to understand why the government is not bringing in legislation to regulate mobile phone towers, especially because unchecked radiation from them can put citizens’ lives at risk. “It is ironical that there are specific laws to protect consumers from unethical commercial practices, but none to protect against something that affects their health,” says Milind Bembalkar, member of the Mobile Tower Grievance Forum, Mumbai, who also feels that the need of the hour is a specific law in this regard.

Of course, even a law to monitor mobile phone towers can be flouted. But at least a beginning would be made to strictly regulate the emission levels of mobile phone towers.