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If not for high speed internet connectivity, the world would certainly have come to a standstill, in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic that started in December 2019. While the virus made free movement impossible, companies launched remote working policies in an attempt to continue with business as usual. Thanks to the mobile tower infrastructure, it was not hard for us to adapt to the new normal quickly. In spite of the obvious benefits this infrastructure offers, its presence in residential areas continues to be a cause of concern. It is in this context that we discuss the merits and demerits of living in close proximity to mobile towers.
Mobile towers: The health hazards
According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), radiation from cell phone handsets and towers are ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ and may cause glioma, a type of brain cancer. With greater intensity and consistent radiation, mobile towers may be more dangerous than mobile phones.
Based on the results of studies conducted between 2008 and 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a technical report, stating that there was insufficient evidence to support a causal association between radio frequency radiation (RFR) exposure and tumour formation.
According to the UK Advisory Group on non-ionising radiation, exposure levels from living near mobile phone base stations are extremely low and the overall evidence indicates that they are unlikely to pose a health risk. However, experts maintain that there are insufficient well-controlled studies to draw any firm conclusions.
While a long-held view of the industry has been that there is no scientific data to prove emissions from mobile towers cause cancers, some experts argue that these could cause swelling in the brain and head, headaches, hearing loss, and anxiety neurosis. Their effects are much more adverse on children and patients.
The well-known stand of health experts is that living close to mobile towers is not any different from being surrounded by lead, DDT, chloroform and petrol exhaust. Hence, Indian cities continue to see increased installations, sometimes in residential areas and closer to educational and health institutes.
In 2009, India adopted and still follows the International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines on exposure to radiation. However, these guidelines did not factor the biological impact of mobile tower radiations and only spoke of protection against short-term gross heating effects.
The monetary benefits of mobile towers on residential buildings
Needless to say, with a dramatic increase in the number of users, mobile companies have been forced to expand their services and are keen on using residential areas to install towers, to offer better services.
Most of the time, they do not face any opposition to increasing their footprint in residential areas, for two reasons. Firstly, mobile companies get continued support from residents to install towers, because of the monetary incentives they offer. Secondly, in addition to earning monthly rentals that might run up to lakhs of rupees, housing societies that allow mobile tower installations, are also offered incentives like free internet and call facilities by the service providers. Purely from a monetary point of view, it makes perfect sense for a landlord or managers of housing societies, to offer the premises to mobile companies for mobile tower installation. While doing so, not much attention is paid to the possible health hazards that the base station antennas can cause.
Is it legal to install mobile towers in residential areas?
As long as they have a structural safety certificate from a designated institute, the approval of the municipal authority and sign an indemnity bond stating that they would be responsible for any losses or injuries caused by the tower, companies are free to install mobile towers in residential areas, if they have the residents’ support. This is because the law does not make residential areas off limits for them. Companies just have to ensure that the tower is not installed within a 100-metre radius of hospitals and educational institutes. Even though the guidelines mention that companies should prefer forest areas for mobile tower installation, they nowhere categorically prohibit the service operators from spreading the network in highly populated areas.
How can you stop mobile tower installation in a residential area?
In case a tower is built and is being operated by the company without due approvals in place, the residents must report the same at the earliest. In January 2021, for example, the department of town and country planning in Gurugram sealed four illegal mobile towers, while acting upon a complaint of Mapsko Casa Bella society in Sector 82. The towers were installed and were being operated in the building meant for the economically weaker section (EWS) of the society, without the department’s permission.
In March 2021, the Faraskhana police in Pune seized a total of 26 mobile network boosters and deactivated another 27 during a raid. The police took down illegal mobile signal repeaters installed in homes, shops and other commercial establishments during the raid.
In case your Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) has allowed a mobile operator to set up mobile towers, to earn rentals, you can approach the local authority – the sub district magistrate or the joint commissioner in your district – to stop the installation, citing mental and physical impact of such a move. It only helps if you have the support of other members of the housing society and approach the authority through a joint complaint.
In 2020, the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation pulled down a mobile tower at Fragrance Garden, Sector 26, after residents continued to protest against it for over a year. The mobile tower was built by the company even though the estate office had not given permission for its installation. However, a no-objection certificate had been issued by the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation for the mobile tower, two months after the UT estate office had written to the additional commissioner, seeking action against the operator.
You could also approach the green tribunal to stop the installation of mobile towers. In December 2020, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the Delhi Pollution Control Committee and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation to look into the issue and take appropriate action, after the residents moved a plea in the green tribunal against the installation of a mobile tower in an apartment building located in Vasundhara Enclave.
In September 2020, the NGT also directed the Bihar State Pollution Control Board to frame guidelines regarding the installation of mobile towers and its harmful effects. Under the Bihar Communication Tower and Related Structure Rules, 2012, communication towers can be installed only on a commercial building or on vacant land. These towers cannot be installed within a radius of 100 metres from schools, colleges or hospitals.
Note here that apart from maintaining the position that there is no evidence to prove that electromagnetic radiations from the mobile towers either cause pollution or health hazards, telecom companies had also earlier questioned the jurisdiction of the NGT to decide on such complaints.
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Possible effects of mobile towers on human health
Is mobile tower harmful for health?
While there is no sufficient data to prove that radiation from mobile towers could cause cancer, experts opine that they could cause adverse impacts on the physical and mental health of people living close by.
How far away should you live from a cell tower?
According to the guidelines followed in India, no mobile tower should be installed within a 100-metre radius of hospitals and educational institutes. Thus, such towers should be set up keeping in view the minimum limit.