CHENNAI • BENGALURU
After the alarming story of Delhi and Mumbai, this week we checked 50 spots each in Bengaluru and Chennai for EMR radiation. The readings were depressingly similar. Samrat Chakrabartitracks the southern story
BENGALURU, THE epicentre of India’s IT revolution and a city often held as a benchmark for standards of living, faces a serious hazard: it is living inside an insidious electromagnetic radiation (EMR) cloud.
THE STORY SO FAR
TEHELKA’s EMR surveys have triggered a massive nation-wide campaign. Both government and media have swung into action
The TEHELKA EMR survey of 100 spots across Delhi was the first of its size in an Indian metro. It followed this with an exhaustive one in Mumbai. The finds only got more alarming. If close to four fifths of Delhi was living in unsafe radiation zones, over nine-tenths of Mumbai was doing so too. The one fifth of Delhi which lived and worked in safe zones was almost entirely in VVIP areas. This was not true of Mumbai. Here film stars and common folk were all equally affected.
THE IMPACT Television channels like Headlines Today and Star News partnered TEHELKA in broadcasting the findings. Alarmed citizens across the country wrote in to TEHELKA asking for surveys in their towns — ranging from Chandigarh to Guwahati and Lucknow to Hyderabad. In Delhi, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said she had requested the Delhi High Court to step in; the High Court ordered setting up a high-level committee to look into the health hazards of cell tower violations. Predictably, the industry has obtained a stay on the order. But the Delhi government has also ordered its own survey on cell towers. In Mumbai, Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan directed top bureaucrats to look into the TEHELKA survey findings. Meanwhile, angry consumers continue to pour letters in.
Over the last two weeks, TEHELKA has mapped EMR emanating from mobile phone towers in Delhi and Mumbai. The findings have triggered a high-octane, nation- wide campaign demanding accountability. Now, in the last of the series, we set out to map the readings in Chennai and Bengaluru. The High Frequency Analyser (HFA) that the TEHELKA-Cogent Survey team used to gauge the EMR levels started buzzing ominously quite early into the journey that takes you from the international airport to the city. According to international norms accepted by India, the safe level of EMR is 600 mW/msq. Anything above this is deemed hazardous to human and animal health. The analyser lets out a buzzing sound when it detects radiation exceeding the highest level it’s designed to measure: 4000 mW/msq. When the machine does this, you know you are in an ‘extreme anomaly’ zone.
Yelahanka, a satellite town of Bengaluru, seems a monument to ‘extreme anomaly’. Every measurement we took in Yelahanka had the analyser buzzing. The skyline offers an explanation. Everywhere the eye can see is a metal filigree of cell towers. From houses to malls, clusters of towers jut outwards, without warning signs, fencing or the mandatory threemeter distance from the base of the tower to the lower end of the antenna: that is, without paying any heed to guidelines.
HOW WE DID IT
The machines, the readings. Zafar Haq on how EMR is mapped
COGENT EMR SOLUTION conducted this survey with TEHELKA to ascertain the levels of electromagnetic radiation in Indian cities. We tried to have a mix of localities, and to cover market places, residential areas, office spaces, schools, hospitals etc, but these locations were picked randomly and no specific locality, area or installation was targeted.
We have tried to match the procedure of this survey as closely as possible to the procedure of audit recommended by the Telecom Engineering Commission (TEC). The equipment used too is of established brands, meeting specifications recommended by TEC.
The observations/ findings of the survey are mostly about non-conformity of ICNIRP Guidelines, Government Of Delhi Guidelines and other established procedures elsewhere in the world about installation of cell towers.
The survey has not been limited to checking radiation levels but has covered various other violations committed while installing a mobile tower such as the height of the tower, number of antenna, usage of the premises other than the cell tower etc. The findings have been extremely fair and we have ensured a validation process by taking measurements using two different equipments and taking readings at similar times on various days before and after the shared results to ensure consistency in the results.
Even though we have taken the readings using a Spectrum Analyzer which captures the EMR emitted at each frequency in operation at a spot we have not shared this information since the purpose of the survey was NOT to identify and pin-point particular operators.
Also, the purpose of the survey is not to scare people but to generate awareness. We have shared measurements taken at safe localities as well as those that have displayed ‘extreme anomaly’, with no attempt to skew the findings.
At no point has the TEHELKA-Cogent survey suggested that mobile telephony per se is dangerous. Instead, the survey has sought to draw attention to violations that make a good thing dangerous.
Haq is CEO of Cogent EMR Ltd
Disturbing as that may be, it’s not the most worrying part. As you would expect, the intensity of radiation from a cell tower drops sharply the further you go away from it. But in many spots in Yelahanka where we took measurements, the closest cell tower was some distance away. And yet, the analyser showed the same level you get when you hold it right up to an antenna. This means that the proliferation of cell towers has reached such levels in Yelahanka that it makes no difference how far you live from one.
Off the airport road, the TEHELKA-Cogent team found a small residential colony called Vinayak Nagar nestled among seven large cell towers. It drenched the local Ideal City hospital in 4000+ radiation levels. Most callously, there was one on the sports field of the local school. The guidelines forbid the erection of cell towers on school buildings, the logic being that a pre-adolescent’s skull is especially vulnerable to EMR. When asked, Venkataraju, the school’s secretary, said no information on hazards of EMR was provided to the school at the time of installation by the telecom company nor has he seen any warning signs on the towers that now dot the area. After our visit, he called the cell company and was promised a letter stating in writing that there are no health hazards from the tower on the sports field, that has been there for seven years. (In the last year, four new ones have come up in the colony).
Schools in the heart of Bengaluru hardly seem safe either. Of the seven tested for radiation, only one, the Kendriya Vidyalaya in RT Nagar, had acceptable levels of EMR. Bishop Cotton Girls is surrounded by low-lying tower clusters, with one jutting out of the balcony of the nearby night spot, Club Nero. Good Shepherd Nursery School, its vulnerability couched in its name, too was extremely unsafe, with levels over 4,000.
But the story is not one of schools only. EMR in the city seldom comes down to measurable levels. The residential neighbourhood of Mekhri Circle, Cubbon Road, the whole of Infantry Road that houses the police commissioner’s office along with other important government offices, the weekend haunt that is Brigade Road, MG Road, the ironically named IT hub, Electronic City — all clocked above 4000 on the HF analyser.
It was the upper-class, tree-canopied neighbourhoods that regularly turned out to be safe. Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily’s house in RT Nagar, External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s house in Sadashiv Nagar and Narayana Murthy’s house in Jayanagar were well below any potential threat.
The CM’s office, right behind his official residence, has atop its first floor roof a small cluster of mobile towers, the antennas facing the second floor of the Lalit Hotel barely 100 meters away. The tiny Vinayaka Temple on the footpath at the beginning of MG Road, has a cluster of towers impossibly grafted onto its roof, facing the first floor of almost all the buildings around. But then, the IT city’s electronic excesses are to be expected — its boomtime growth has already taken it far beyond redemption and its salubrious climate became a thing of the past long before the mobile boom.
BINA RAJJAN, 32-year-old BPO professional and Chennai resident, is today a nervous woman. Three years ago, she moved into her dream home — a three-bedroom flat on the ninth floor of the plush Ramanayum Abhishek residential complex in Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur area, with a balcony that overlooks the length of the East Coast Road and the Bay of Bengal. Then, three weeks back, she read TEHELKA’s cover story on Delhi’s EMR menace, and now some of that dream has soured. It’s the view of the other balcony that is causing trouble — three cell towers surround her drawing room, with the furthest one a mere 200 feet away. Having just learnt about the issue, she now wonders if her husband’s recent headaches have anything to do with the towers. The EMR levels in her flat are way above permissible levels.
About 20 km away, in posh Gopalapuram, Mustaq Ahmed, 47-year-old businessman, who has stayed for 10 years in a four-storey apartment building, is also ill at ease, though for a different reason. Radiation levels in his flat are within the safe range, but he worries about the 1400+ levels of EMR affecting the DAV Girls High School opposite his house.
Chennai, the second stop on the southern leg of the TEHELKA-Cogent EMR survey, does better than Bengaluru, but only just. The city showed a bit more variation than the near constant 4000+ levels found throughout most of North and South Bengaluru but that’s a minor point. Chennai EMR levels are a mixed bag but it has enough of its own 4000+ levels of ‘extreme anomaly’. Nungambakkam residential area and CIT Nagar Nandanam, T Nagar’s jewellery and textile market, large sections of Mount Road, CLRI Kendriya Vidyalaya and a residential colony on Sardar Patel Road in Adyar, are all highly unsafe.
A high school in Bengaluru has had a cell tower on its sports field for seven years, with no one aware about the ill effects
Chennai then also abounds in cell tower violations. While major hospitals like Apollo have been mindful of health hazards, the smaller ones are less careful. Navdeep Laboratory in Chinnamalai has a large cell tower erected right on its terrace while one of the tower clusters is ironically erected on the Hale and Healthy Hospital. Many areas have done away with the three-meter height rule — small tenements overlooking the Apollo Heart Hospital at Thousand Lights have antennae on their balconies, directly aimed at the heart hospital. EMR is particularly hazardous for patients with pacemakers.
Tidel Park, Chennai’s IT landmark, has cell towers aimed at the offices. In fact, this is a prolific violation in the commercial areas of Chennai, where smaller buildings have cell towers directly facing the intermediate floors of taller, adjacent buildings. This would suggest that borderline or unsafe levels measured on the road could easily reach extreme levels if one were to repeat the measurements on upper floors. This is what was observed in Bina’s case — the street level radiation was a few thousand points lower than the 4000+ levels in her ninth floor flat.
In this city too, the posh neighbourhoods are better off. Poes Garden, where Rajnikanth and J Jayalalithaa live, is very safe, barely registering on the analyser, although Chief Minister M Karunanidhi’s house was unsafe at 1100 mW/msq.
Mustaq thinks the “powerful are hand-in- glove with the telecom companies” and the only way anything is going to change is to galvanise resident associations. Meanwhile, Bina wants to know what she can do to shield herself from the radiation and wants to take up the matter with her RWA in the next meeting.
‘We have to pay to remove the tower!’
TWO CELL PHONE antennae masts were erected on the terrace of Building A of Vasant ViharComplex, at Chembur, three months ago. The decision to erect these masts was taken by the building’s residential society’s Central Committee. The Briha Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) rules require the permission of such a central committee as well as the permission of every resident on the top floor, before telecom towers are set up on its roof. One of the residents on the top floor of Building A is pregnant. She was unaware of the possible ill effects of EMR when she gave her consent. Another top-floor resident refused to give permission. Yet the towers are there.
Rajni Shetty, 51, lives in another building in the same complex. She is not directly affected by the cell towers, but she cannot believe permission for these towers has been obtained from residents without informing them of the health risks. She has started a signature campaign for the removal of these towers on Building A. “I collected information regarding the possible health hazards posed by this antennae and told the residents,” she said.
The committee members laughed at Shetty, asking her what she would achieve with her signature campaign. However Shetty now says, “80 percent of the residents in Building A have now signed in favour of its removal,” says Shetty. She expects more signatures to come in soon.
Yet the towers still stand. “The reason given to us by the committee is that if they remove the towers they will have to pay Rs 5 lakh every year for the next five years to the mobile operator who erected this tower,” says Shetty. That would mean Rs 25 lakh to remove a mobile tower from one’s own premises.
“The committee says this is in the contract with the telecom operator,” says Shetty. “And no resident is willing to shell out such a large sum.”
‘The tower is unauthorised’
Live in a top-floor flat that faces an unauthorised cell phone tower.
UMA AND Vijay Nagpal have been living on the top floor of Vijay Classic Apartments, a seven-floor building that is adjacent to Vasant Vihar Complex’s Building A. They have been living there for the last seven years. Uma is a content-writer and her husband is a retired marine engineer. They are both above 50, and this flat is their dream home. Till three months ago, they’d enjoy a cup of tea in their verandah.When their grandchildren were visiting, they would join them too.
But not for the last three months. Not since cell towers have sprung up on the roof of Vasant Vihar Complex’s A Building. These towers face the verandah the Nagpals enjoyed so much. The EMR they emit come straight into the Nagpals’ home — a situation they hate since the couple have read extensively on the ill effects of EMR. “Since these cell towers have come up, we avoid coming out on the terrace ourselves, and forbid our grandchildren to do so too,” says Uma Nagpal. Vijay Nagpal adds that the same telecom operator had asked them for permission to put up the cell towers on the roof, but he had refused. “What was the point of this refusal if the cell towers were to come up right in front of my home anyway?” he asks.
Now, the Nagpals have filed a complaint with the BMC, in the hope that the towers that threaten their quality of life may not be authorised. “And we found out they weren’t,” says Uma Nagpal. “Now we’re hoping the BMC will take up the matter.” Yet the BMC officials have paid just one visit to Vasant Vihar Complex where the towers are, and missed meeting the secretary of the central committee. They haven’t returned. So Uma has joined Rajni Shetty’s signature campaign, and has begun collecting signatures from her own building. “Besides us the people who spend the most time in this house are our grandchildren,” she says. The pre-adolescent and the aged are said to be especially prone to the ill effects of EMR.
The government must regulate these cell towers stringently. If you keep seeking a body of evidence the danger is that many more lives will be lost in trying to find a direct relation. It was the same thing with tobacco companies. They said there was no direct correlation between smoking and various diseases. By the time such correlation was established it was too late. We must have strict legislation on this even if evidence is not 100 percent clinching.
Associate Professor, IIT Powai
Even the limit of 600 mW / msq is too high for human safety. The ICNIRP guidelines are too lax . Every tower must transmit at one-tenth the current power. Self-audits by telecom operators won’t ensure this. There must be third party audits. If the DoT checks only 10 percent of the audits, then defaulters must be penalised at 10 times the normal rate.
DR SK SHRIVASTAVA
Head of the Department, Radiation Oncology,
Tata Memorial Hospital
The effect on health, especially related to cancer, is yet to be ascertained. We need a thorough study on the effects of EMR on human health. Till then we should take precautions to prevent exposure to excessive EMR. The government should circulate guidelines and monitor the industries.
PRAHLAD KAKAR, Adman
We suspected EMR from cell phones were frying our brains. Now it’s a fact — only it’s EMR from cell phone towers. The government better make some solid rules. The only problem is that rules are fine on paper. The guardians of these laws are extremely open to corruption.
It is necessary to protect our people, and at the same time cell phone towers are also a necessity. Our government should look to other developed countries and see how they have dealt with this.
SHRADDHA JADHAV, Mayor of Mumbai
This will not do. What is especially disturbing, even more than the radiation levels, is that these cell phone towers have been placed not only on top of high rises, but in slums as well. The cell phone operators must be made liable
for doing this.