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Wed 3Sep2014

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Towering infernal radiation

By Darryl D'Monte

Mumbai is possibly the city worst-affected by radiation from cell phone towers, with roughly 80% of its 10,000 towers allegedly illegal and unsafe. An aggressive campaign by citizens has finally brought attention to the serious health risks and the transgressions of the law

Towering infernal radiation

This column begins on a personal note. I have cell phone towers atop a building directly behind me and, incidentally, diagonally opposite the newly-constructed multi-storeyed residence of Mumbai’s newest Rajya Sabha MP, who knows a thing or two about wielding a willow. I lost my sister-in-law to brain cancer in 2008 and, since August last year, have myself been treated for leukaemia. While we cannot say that this was caused by radiation from the cell tower, by the same token the possibility -- particularly of contracting brain cancer -- cannot be ruled out either. The Bandra West Residents Association has written to Anjali Tendulkar, who has qualified as a doctor, but has not had a reply.

Mumbai is probably the worst-affected city in the country, due to its extremely high population density. In fact, at one stage in the ’60s, areas like Bhuleshwar had the highest densities in the world, but, with the current predilection for nuclear families, young couples have moved to the northern suburbs. Even so, whether it is the ultra-rich enclave of Malabar Hill, which has witnessed the first successful people’s campaign against such towers, as has the north-eastern suburb of Kanjurmarg, the propensity for Mumbai to grow vertically and have high-rises cheek-by-jowl with each other should never be under-estimated.

In a press release on September 13, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT), headed by Mumbai MP Milind Deora, told seven operators of cell towers on top of buildings in Mumbai to dismantle them immediately. These were at sites adjacent to a cooperative housing society in Kanjurmarg (East), which had as many as 11 licensed base transreceiver stations (BTSs) in the vicinity. They belonged to major reputed operators: Tata Teleservices (Maharashtra) Ltd, Reliance Communications, Aircel, Idea Cellular, Airtel and Loop Telecom.

From September 1, the DoT has brought down the permissible nationwide limit, emulating the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNRP) standard, from 4.5 Watts per square metre (W/m₂) to 0.45 W/m₂. The reduction to (not by) one-tenth of the original radiation permissible limit might appear safe but, according to experts, the actual limit should be 0.0001 W/m₂. No wonder that there have not been howls of protest from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). Its spokesperson, who also appeared in NDTV’s ‘We the People’ programme on Sunday, September 16, said after the crackdown in Mumbai: “It was only one multi-tenant tower for which radiation was found to be marginally, at 1.1 W/m₂ (sic) compared with 0.92 W/m₂ required by the guidelines. The tower has been shut. Most of our members are fully compliant with the rules.”

According to activists like Prakash Munshi and actor Juhi Chawla, who live in neighbouring buildings on Malabar Hill, the COAI is being economical with the truth. Of the roughly estimated 10,000 cell towers in Mumbai, they allege that as many as 80% are illegal. A recent Municipal Corporation survey itself found that half the 3,705 towers scrutinised were unauthorised. The Municipal Corporation’s building proposal department wrote to Idea Cellular Towers Infrastructures Ltd in June this year, in reply to a complaint by Jennifer Fernandes, a first-floor resident of Ravi Shakun Apartments in Santa Cruz (West). It clarified that the consent of all the occupants of the building required to be obtained, and Idea was asked to remove the antennae in 15 days.

Residents of Peddar Road, one of the main north-south arteries of the city, are about to take the authorities to court for permitting a building to erect such towers in their midst. They have already tasted blood, with the backing of renowned residents like Lata Mangeshkar (who threatened at one stage to shift to Dubai) and Asha Bhosle, in stalling the construction of a flyover through the length of the road.  Residents and activists note, however, to their dismay that some of the best-known names in the legal fraternity are representing the COAI members, just as most of them did a few years ago for mill owners in a much more controversial case regarding the public share of city cotton mill land which was being redeveloped.

According to information put together by Sangeeta John from the recently formed citizens’ group called Action Against Cell Towers (AACT), of which this columnist is a founder: “Continued exposure to radiation shows incidence of biological effects such as cancer and genetic damage. Some of the serious health concerns are certain types of cancer like leukaemia, bladder cancer, impaired memory, hearing loss, skin infections. People living near the towers have complained of headache, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, insomnia. The biological effects are because of multiple resonances resulting from localised heating due to radiation.” 

“Usha Kiran building is a classic case study,” she writes. “One of the oldest and most prestigious residential towers, Usha Kiran (ironically named in retrospect: freely translated as ‘The Dawn’s Rays’) is directly affected by cell tower radiation. It is on Carmichael Road and is facing the cell phone towers installed on Vijay Apartments’ terrace, directly opposite. There have been six cancer cases, including one death, in four floors (fifth, sixth, eighth and tenth).”  The fatality was that of the wife of Vijay Gokhale, who was arrested as the top manager at Union Carbide when the Bhopal pesticide factory leaked toxic gas in December 1984. There are 10 other cancer cases in the vicinity of Usha Kiran.

At a meeting at Juhi Chawla’s residence recently, Jayshree Patel from Pali Hill, the one-time abode of most of Bollywood, related how her husband has shifted from the bedroom to the drawing room at night because of disturbance to his sleep, since the bedroom was in line of sight of a tower. Another member of AACT, Thanush Joseph, has barred his young children from entering his balcony for fear of being exposed to radiation. At the other end of the social spectrum, traffic policemen at the busy Mahalaxmi intersection have asked to be relieved from the site, which is in full view of cell towers, after complaining of ill health.

Minister Deora told Chawla in 2011: “We wouldn’t want that 20 years down the line we have an entire population of young children, young adults, old people suffering from serious health effects due to our negligence, our inaction, or our ignorance.” And to health and telecom ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal respectively he wrote: “I am aware of the importance of spreading the telecom network in the country for the all-round development and future expansion of our nation. However, in view of the susceptibility of Indian citizens to possible health risks, I suggest the use of lower-power micro-cell transmitters with inbuilt solutions instead of the present trend of using high-power transmission over mobile towers or high-rise buildings. A number of studies have reported a correlation between exposure to radio frequency radiation and occurrence of disorders in cells, DNA, immune system, hormones and reproduction.” The Cancer Patients Aid Association is surveying suspect buildings throughout Mumbai.

Chawla herself achieved the unimaginable after noticing that her building was surrounded by 14 towers, some of which were only 40 metres away. The average price paid by operators for a tower is Rs 5 lakh a year. The presence of a cluster implies that, in such cases, residents do not have to pay for outgoings every month -- they may, on the contrary, sometimes even be shoring up the society’s capital. Chawla had her building’s radiation levels checked, and found that it was well over the limit. She wrote to the chief minister (the state guest house, Sahyadri, lies directly opposite her), the municipal commissioner, health minister, and so on; she was fobbed off at every stage.

She then put up banners in her compound alerting neighbours as well as passersby to conditions such as dizziness, Parkinson’s, forgetfulness and so on. The curiosity of passersby and the media (who often congregated for official press conferences at Sahyadri) was aroused and the press came to interview the actor. An RTI application revealed -- in a characteristic response by the sluggish and insensitive municipal bureaucracy -- that her complaint file was missing and, on other occasions, “damaged”. Eventually, however, her persistence paid off and possibly due to her celebrity status the operators dismantled the towers.

The corporate think-tank Bombay First has written to the state environment and health secretaries about these hazards. There are two technical issues involved regarding cell towers which people understandably find difficult to comprehend, and the operators take full advantage of such lack of knowledge. One is the power which the towers use to send out signals for cell phones. The other is the electro magnetic field radiation (EMFR) emitted by the towers. As Munshi observes, while the EMFR emitted by towers can be controlled by remote switches, and the standard has now been reduced to one-tenth of the former, the power usage “goes up and down, depending on the frequency of use of cell phones during the day”. Inspectors in this country are known, as was brought to common knowledge especially after the Bhopal gas tragedy, to helpfully inform owners of industrial or other environmentally sensitive sites of a prospective visit, in return for a well-stuffed brown envelope. When anyone is monitoring the radiation of a cell tower, operators can easily control such radiation at a flick of a switch, only to turn it on again after the inspection is over.

The problem is that there are regulations only for radiation per tower, but there are no standards for clusters, from which radiation emanates from all sides. There should also be heights prescribed for cell towers, transmitters and receivers. The distances at which these devices are installed away from residences, schools and hospitals should similarly be laid down. Only recently, the environment ministry banned these towers within national parks -- it would thus seem that animals are more fragile than humans!

In many instances, there is complete ad hocism in the laws pertaining to the use of towers. The COAI, represented by Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the former Congress spokesperson who fell from grace, took the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to the high court over its restrictions on usage in 2003. In a pathbreaking order, judges cited how the lieutenant governor of the Delhi Capital Territory had ruled that such towers could only be installed with the permission of the resident welfare associations (RWAs), the Mumbai equivalent being the advanced locality management societies, or ALMS. The court went on to state: “Operator should be asked to put up signboards/warning signs at the base station antenna sites, which should be clearly visible and identifiable. A warning sign should be placed at the entrance of such a zone. The ‘warning sign’ should discourage longer stay in the zone, even for the maintenance personnel. The signboard may contain the following text: ‘Danger! RF radiation. Do not enter!’” It prioritised the selection of sites as follows: “a) All municipal buildings including community centres, except schools, hospitals and dispensaries. b) Other government buildings. c) Other non-residential buildings ie industrial, commercial and institutional buildings… Erection of cell tower on residential buildings shall only be allowed in those cases where no alternative is available.”

In Mumbai, however, the action of the Municipal Corporation to restrict the operation of as many as 1,000 towers has been stayed in the high court by the operators, who were represented by Iqbal Chagla, son of India’s best-known judge M C Chagla. All thousand sites are listed in the case, which is a minefield for activists to scrutinise. According to Munshi, Vodafone has had its towers removed in its parent country, the UK. In Jaipur, he says, there was a virtual “mutiny” by housewives, who were instrumental in removing power lines. One brother of the Kasliwal family, who appeared in the NDTV show, cited how his brother as well as his pet dog died of cancer in that city.

Even well-informed and concerned viewers have been expressing doubts about the dangers of cell towers after listening to the COAI spokesperson on NDTV waxing eloquent about the safety of these devices. With 3G and 4G on the horizon, the hazards of cell towers can only magnify several-fold. The minimum distance for a 4G cell antenna from a residence is estimated at 100 metres, which is difficult in a city like Mumbai unless these are restricted to non-residential areas. With public concern growing by the day, if not by the hour, the possibility of operators obtaining buildings for 3G is growing more problematic. As Munshi concludes, as with the environmental and health concern over tobacco, asbestos, gutka, DDT, dyestuffs and other substances which are either consumed or have humans living close to and took up to half a century to bring under the law, the precautionary principle applies. It is better to err on the side of caution in such cases -- to be safe, before one is sorry.

This year, ironically enough, marks half a century since the publication of Rachel Carson’s pioneering book Silent Spring which, for the first time in 1962, revealed how pesticides were leaching into the soil and water and killing birds in the wild in the US. Asked by a US publisher to write a chapter in a world-wide compendium on how different countries have responded to the threat of pesticides entering the animal and human systems, I titled my chapter ‘India’s not-so-silent springs’, focusing mainly on the careless spraying of cashew nut plantations in Kerala with endosulfan. Here too, in the initial years two decades ago, pesticide manufacturers and plantation owners said that these were irrational fears voiced by the public. Today, the maimed bodies of the victims, mostly children, stand in mute testimony to the criminal negligence of these vested interests.

Around 1925, US oil companies, aided and abetted by the all-powerful automobile manufacturers’ lobby, introduced lead in petrol to stop engines from ‘knocking’. As can be well understood, even the word ‘environment’ was unfamiliar, if non-existent, in those days. In answer to queries by concerned citizens, the two vested interests, acting in tandem, argued that the amount of lead introduced in the fuel was far too small to cause any damage to humans. Now, in retrospect, the addition of lead singularly has been responsible for damaging the brains of millions of young people throughout the world for nearly 90 years. It was only relatively recently that India banned the use of lead, typically falling in line several years after such environmental curbs were introduced in the West.

Infochange News & Features, September 2012