On Monday, the Supreme Court sought answers from the government on a range of questions pertaining to mobile towers. A bench comprising Chief Justice T.S. Thakur and Justices C. Nagappan and A.M. Khanwilkar asked the department of telecommunications (DoT) if it had set standards to deal with the radiation from them and wanted to know if there were harmful effects. Mobile towers have become controversial in the past decade and answers to the apex court’s queries could clear the air.
The apex court’s queries were in response to a petition filed by a Noida resident, alleging that the adverse effects of mobile towers range “from headaches, sleep disturbances, dizziness, other neurophysical disturbances to life-threatening brain tumors”. “Radiation from cell phones and towers has also been linked to sweeping decline of honey bees, sparrows, and other birds and animals,” the petition said. These health and environment hazards were, in fact, recognised by the ministry of environment and forests in 2011. That year, a committee of the ministry suggested that electromagnetic radiation (EMR) by mobile towers be treated as a pollutant. In 2012, DoT framed guidelines for issuing clearances for these towers. They reduced the permissible radiation limits for towers to 10 times lower than those recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (more than 50 countries follow this standard). The stringent norms were criticised by the telecom industry and the WHO. But both the UPA government and the current NDA government have been steadfast in erring on the side of caution. Both governments have, however, paid short shrift to another recommendation of the MoEF committee that suggested treating radiation from mobile towers as pollutants: The guidelines for setting up mobile towers do not bar the installation of towers near hospitals, old age homes and schools. Such proscription is international practice.
Meanwhile, citizen’s groups, resident welfare associations and individual citizens have petitioned the government and kept up the pressure, even as scientists have reiterated the safety of these towers. In 2013, a group of scientists from IITs of Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Madras, and Kanpur and the IISC in Bengaluru wrote to the government saying that radiation from cellphone towers is too little to cause harm. In July, the DoT organised an awareness campaign in Hyderabad to allay people’s misgivings. Such initiatives have, however, been very few. One hopes the apex court’s queries will goad the government — and the scientific community — into allaying people’s fears.
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