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Towers of contention

In the last 24 months,there have been at least seven policy drafts by the three agencies.

BMC,the state’s urban development department and the Union ministry for communications have failed to harmonise their respective policies on cellphone towers,only adding to confusion about how safe these towers in the city are. In the last 24 months,there have been at least seven policy drafts by the three agencies,besides numerous representations and suggestions by activists. Still,a uniform policy eludes them,find out MIHIKA BASU and SHARVARI PATWA

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT),the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the state’s urban development department (UDD) have each drafted their own guidelines on cellphone towers. There is currently lack of clarity as to which draft will be finally implemented in the city. This,coupled with a Bombay High Court stay order on the demolition of cellphone towers in Mumbai,have resulted in policy paralysis,with no action on 3,661 illegal towers across the city.

MULTIPLE POLICY DRAFTS

While cellphone towers have been a bone of contention for several years,the debate intensified in Mumbai in 2011 and saw actor Juhi Chawla and south Mumbai residents aggressively advocating for safer norms. The civic body issued three drafts in a span of a year – in November 2012,July 2013 and the final revised one in September this year. According to BMC’s last draft,existing mobile tower antennae on schools,colleges and hospitals will have to be removed after the expiry of their approval period. The BMC,which will need the approvals all 227 corporators in its general body meeting,retained the ban on installation of such antennae on the top of and within 100 metres of educational institutions,hospitals,children’s correction homes,senior citizens’ homes and hostels or orphanage buildings for the children. This was in deviation from DoT’s advisory guidelines,which did not specify any exclusion area or zone for installing cellphone towers.

In yet another twist,the state UDD’s notice in October proposed to allow mobile tower antennaes three metres away from the boundary of schools,colleges and hospital premises,in sharp contrast with the September 11 draft policy guidelines of the BMC.

But despite multiple policy drafts by three different agencies and close to 30 broad guidelines,the city is yet to get a final policy.

Meanwhile,in a letter dated October 19,Congress MP Milind Deora,who is also the Union Minister of State for Communications,Information Technology and Shipping,wrote a letter to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan,urging the state to either incorporate the DoT’s revised guidelines and final draft of the civic body “in toto” in the gazette notification of the UDD or “allow each local body to formulate its own guidelines after approval from their respective councils”.

The state’s UDD notice ignores another key feature in the BMC draft,which calls for mandatory no-objection certificate (NOC) within three months of the announcement of the revised policy from the top-floor residents or occupants or tenants of the building where a mobile tower antennae is sought to be installed.

Further,the UDD notice adds more guidelines not mentioned in the civic body’s draft,which include NOC from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board regarding compliance with prescribed norms for noise and smoke levels for the power generating sets to be provided to the base stations as well as NOC from chief fire officer of the concerned urban local boy in case of high-rise buildings. Again,while the BMC draft policy calls for mandatory consent of 70 per cent occupants,the state’s notice calls for either consent of the owner of premises,which will include consent of owner of property,or NOC of the cooperative housing society concerned or consent of 70 per cent of total number of legal occupants in case of apartments/condominium or NOC of the lessor in case of a lease-hold property.

“I am made to understand that the urban development department issued a gazette notification,“proposed modification”,dated October 3,ignoring the revised guidelines of the government of India and final draft policy guidelines of BMC. The gazette copy,issued two months later and ignoring guidelines issued by the DoT,has sent out wrong signals to Mumbaikars and the people of Maharashtra,” Deora wrote in his letter to the CM.

LACK OF CLARITY

While the BMC draft is silent on guidelines with regards to the implementation of its own policy,it is currently unclear what happens to the civic body’s policy in the first place.

The state’s notice,which is an attempt to bring in a comprehensive regulation,will be kept in the public domain for a month. Senior civic officials,however,say it is the state government policy which will have to be adopted by the civic administration ultimately.

“Although we have suggested more stringent guidelines such as the 100-metre distance of cellphone tower antennae from schools,colleges and hospitals,the state government has considerably relaxed this norm. The BMC will finally have to adopt the rules which are given by state government,” says a BMC official.

In light of the multiple policies being prepared by different agencies,both the Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association (TAIPA) and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) have demanded uniform tower guidelines from Maharashtra. Their contention,however,is that BMC’s draft policy has inserted arbitrary clauses that are not in sync with DoT guidelines.

NO POLICY,NO ACTION

Multiple agencies and suggestions have resulted in pretty much no action against faulty or “illegal” cellphone towers or telecom companies. According to official figures released by the BMC in September this year,there are 4,806 cellphone towers in the city,of which 3,661 are illegal and protected by the HC stay order on their demolition. In 2011,mobile operators across the city had moved court when the BMC introduced a drive to demolish several mobile towers. Consequently,the High Court later gave a stay on removal of close to 1,800 towers in the city. Contradicting BMC’s stand on the number of illegal cellphone towers,TAIPA,however,had recently claimed that not a single cellphone tower in Mumbai was illegal and that the BMC had been sitting on applications for 4,578 cellphone towers that had already been installed.

In October last year,Deora had launched a complaint handling system for EMF radiation from mobile towers operational in Mumbai telecom circle. Citizens could also register complaints through a helpline. According to data from the Ministry of Telecommunications and IT,DoT,400 complaints had been registered from Mumbai till March 2013. According to department sources,300 complaints had been examined,leading to the discovery that 90 mobile phone base transmitting stations (BTS) in Mumbai had exceeded the new electromagnetic radiation limit. As per new DoT norms,which came into effect from September 2012,EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation levels cannot exceed 450 milliwatt per square metre,down from the earlier 4,500 milliwatts per square metre. Showcause notices to levy penalty were issued to the service providers concerned in 72 of these cases.

FEAR FACTOR

While radiation from mobile phones and towers has been studied in the West for almost two decades,research on the health hazards of using cellphones has been scarce in India. With health risks still a matter of debate,activists and residents have alleged that the policy has been silent on this,leading to a lack of urgency on its implementation.

However,a “Bio-initiative Working Group 2012” report,based on research from 10 countries including India,claimed that the most common ailments due to continuous base station-level exposure are sleep disorder,headache,irritability,concentration problems,memory loss and depression. The report said that severe problems include seizures,paralysis,miscarriages,irreversible infertility and cancer and that children,pregnant women and old people are the most vulnerable.

“It is like continuously being exposed to the sun. How can that be good for the health? Although we have formed policies to remove unauthorised cellphone towers,it

is not the towers,but the radiation from antennaes which is actually harmful,” said Prakash Munshi,

an activist who has been on the forefront of campaigns for safer cellphone tower norms and is also a member of “Indians for Safe Environments”.

In 2010,worried about the harmful affects of radiation from the nearby television tower in Worli,a city developer had asked an IIT Bombay professor,Girish Kumar,to install radiation shields in the 300-metre-high building in the area.

A report on electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell towers,presented by the COAI during a workshop at IIT Bombay in 2011,measured emissions from 300 locations in Mumbai,Delhi and Pune. The study,which was conducted at 96 locations in Mumbai,however,concluded that emissions levels were several times lower than permissible limit.

Meanwhile,as agencies sit on various policies,residents battle with fear.

Rajkumar Sharma,a Chembur resident and chairperson of an umbrella body of various citizen groups in Chembur),says: “These various proposals and policies are meaningless unless they are implemented in full force immediately. In the monthly meetings of resident associations at Chembur,the issue of unauthorised cellphone towers comes up regularly but due to an absence of a concrete policy,the BMC refuses to take action against them. For example,we have been asking the BMC to remove a cluster of cellphone tower antennaes in a society at Mountainview near Mankhurd as they might pose health hazards and are clearly in violation of all the guidelines suggested in various cellphone tower policies of BMC and the state government. Despite this,the BMC refuses to give us details or take action against such towers.”

In yet another movement,residents of Bhandup’s Mayuresh Park complex are protesting against 24 cellphone towers installed atop their buildings. “The radiation from so many cellphone towers has led to health hazards for residents of the complex,” claims Harish Hegde,a resident,who is leading a local campaign against illegal cellphone towers. He claims there have been cases of cancer,miscarriages,migraine,joint pains and even memory loss among residents.

The six wings,which have 12 towers,houses at least 600 residents in Mayuresh Park.

“Most of these towers do not have a mandatory NOC from BMC,but due to a court stay,they cannot be removed,” says Hegde.

mihika.basu@expressindia.com

sharwari.patwa@expressindia.com

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