In recent months, a large number of mobile phone towers have sprouted atop high-rise buildings in Bengaluru. Building owners or societies agree to the installation of these towers because a handsome rental can be had from the service provider.
But how safe are these towers? With constant exposure to the low radiation that these transmitters emit, what are the long-term health effects of this? Does it matter which side the tower is facing (towards a neighbouring apartment complex or building, for instance)? Do the installers conform to international safety standards? Who monitors?
This was one of the issues raised at the recent annual general meeting (AGM) of Consumer Care Society (CCS) in Banashankari 2nd stage. A south regional workshop on consumer education, organised by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on August 4th , raised several related issues pertaining to mobile phone services and operators. This was attended by a large number of representatives of consumer action groups from all four southern states, and also by a large number of service providers’ representatives.
Recently, at another meeting in Malleshwaram, Dr Sanjay S Supe (professor of radiation physics) of Kidwai Memorial hospital in south Bangalore, spoke about studies that have addressed concerns regarding health effects of radio frequencies emitted by mobile phones. Supe has delivered over 30 talks on mobile phones and their health effects in medical institutions, mobile companies and to the general public.
There exists at least one court directive from Mumbai ordering the removal of many of these towers atop high rise apartment blocks along the fashionable Cuffe Parade in south Mumbai. Bengaluru city’s administrators are now waking up (as per an August 10th report in the Deccan Herald) to the fact that these towers are proliferating, but their emphasis is on taxing them for revenue, and not on checking whether there are enough safeguards to ensure protection against possible long-term health effects.
Ironically, no information about safety guidelines is available either with consumer activists or supervising authorities, another point raised at the CCS meeting.
The report in the Deccan herald also talks about an RTI application response to a resident of Kalyan Nagar in north Bengaluru, which said
- Telecom companies have to obtain clearances from local authorities including the electrical inspectorate and the Director of Fire and Emergency Services, and seek residents’ permission before installation of towers.
- A circular dated November 12th 2001 says captive generator sets cannot be placed on roof tops
- A government order of May 29th 2002 says the permission of the air traffic controller is required before erecting towers for mobile phone services
Risks posed by cell phone usage
It is not just towers but cell phones too, that could pose risks through radiation. It is estimated that one in every two persons in Bengaluru now owns a mobile phone. This includes vegetable vendors, cobblers and domestic workers who are uneducated and therefore may not be aware of the pros and cons of possible radiation-related hazard (not that those of us who surf the net, are fully aware, either!). Nationally, we now have 500 million mobile phones in use, and that number is rising by the day.
But what about the harmful implications of using a mobile phone? What happens when you have long conversations, with a mobile phone held close to your ear and brain? Or when you store it in your breast pocket (or tuck it in at the waist, as I have seen women do) for long periods, or carry it in the pocket of your jeans?
That mobile phones emit electro-magnetic radiation is not disputed, though manufacturers claim it is low and safe. Maybe. But the jury is still out on the long-term health effects, and the medical opinion is that it is safest not to keep the cell consistently next to one’s body for long durations. As Supe explained, initial results of studies from other countries indicate an increased possibility of acoustic neuroma (a non-cancerous tumour that develops on the nerve connecting the ear and brain) and brain tumour for people who used mobile phones for more than ten years.
At the CCS meeting, it was pointed out that one television ad showed a pregnant woman holding a mobile phone against her swollen belly, telling her father to listen to his grandchild’s sounds! Surely, someone should have protested about this ad, to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)?
Role played by service providers
At the TRAI meeting (TRAI’s consultation paper is available at www.trai.gov.in) service providers like Airtel, BSNL, Aircel, Vodafone and Reliance treated us to power point presentations on how responsive their companies are to subscribers’ calls and how they have drawn up citizens charters for mobile subscribers. Which is all fine – on paper.
When one activist stood up to describe how, in a complaint she had pursued on behalf of a mobile subscriber, the deposit had been refunded only after nine months and several representations, and that too without the interest money that the service provider’s own rules mandate, the citizens’ charters and power point declarations seemed a little, shall we say, pointless?
It is not just telecom services. In every service, even where there are a number of competing providers, the gap between promises on paper, and actual quality of service, is large – and it is hard for individuals to address this. Only group initiatives can help.