The Nehru Science Centre, located on E Moses Road, a little away from Mahalaxmi Station, in association with the Press Club, Mumbai, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. held a panel discussion on Thursday (August 29) evening on, ‘Radiation: Myths and Realities.’ The speakers comprised a galaxy (pun unintended) of panellists comprising doctors, scientists, professors, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) representatives, anti-mobile phone tower activists and actors — represented by Juhi Chawla-Mehta who has become an actorvist (amalgamation of actor and activist) in the anti-mobile tower movement. The seminar though, was not just about radiation from cell phone tower antennae, incidentally, it is the antennae on the cell phone towers that emit radiation, not the towers themselves, but about nuclear radiation in general. Mumbai Press Club President, Gurbir Singh moderated the seminar which began a couple of minutes post 4 pm.
A buzz filled the auditorium as Juhi Chawla-Mehta walked in a trifle late, held up by the Govinda crowd who were expecting Shahrukh Khan at Jamboree Maidan dahi handi in Worli. Well-known anti-mobile tower activist Prakash Munshi accompanied Juhi. Munshi who is a Malabar Hill resident, first shot into prominence when he, along with Chirpy Chawla as the film magazines had dubbed Juhi at one time, prevailed upon authorities to remove a clutch of cell phone towers atop the government guesthouse Sahyadri, near their Malabar Hill residences. Now, Munshi is a very vocal presence at most anti-cell phone tower meets. There was a short introduction of speakers, with mandatory flower tributes after which this meet aimed to address issues like:
>> Can we afford not to have private connectivity?
>> Are nuclear plants in India safe?
>> Do cell phone towers cause cancer?
>> How can we, in modern society live without science and technology?
>> How can we be honest with ourselves with reference to nuclear radiation?
First up was speaker Prof. S K Banerjee, who first differentiated between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. The latter, he said, “came from cell phones or microwaves and cannot break the bonds of a chemical compound. Ideally, it should not have a direct effect on our cellular structure. While ionizing radiation is from things like x-rays and can alter the bonds of a chemical compound.” Speaker Dr M H Thakur, Professor & Head, of radio-diagnosis, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, weighed in with cautious words saying that in the case of ionizing radiation, “One has to take into account the risk-benefit ratio. For instance, if there is a victim of a car accident, we have to send him at once for a CT scan, for then, the benefit outweighs any kind of risk, the good outweighs the bad. There is something called ALARA which means, As Low As is Reasonably Achievable, which is the principle on which we work.”
She may be a star but bedazzled by the scientific brilliance around her, Juhi humbly stated, “I do not pretend to be more knowledgeable than I am. I want to state that norms are one thing, but ground reality is another thing altogether. What is happening? Is it safe on the ground? Just because it is non-ionizing, it does not mean it is not harmful. Cancer does not happen in a day but over time; it is a slow and steady killer.”
By now, Gurbir was moving dexterously from speaker to speaker, allowing everyone his or her stipulated two minutes time to get a point of view across. P Ramakrishna, principal advisor for the COAI, Delhi claimed there was, “no cohesive, scientific study pointing to a link between cancer and cell phone towers.” He also stated that cell phone operators had mobile towers well within the stipulated limit adding, “there are cases of cancer which are linked to cell phone towers. Many of these, most in fact, can be genetic, then, there is lifestyle, why is it that whenever there is a problem, one has to link it to cell phone towers?” He also stated that when there is a medical emergency, “you would most probably use a cell phone to call an ambulance.”
One could almost see hackles rise slowly. Activist Munshi was combative stating, “There are such a large number of cell phone towers atop Haji Ali juice centre in the city. The policemen on duty do not want to be there for more than seven days. Sorry we do not accept the norm. The norm itself is wrong,” ended Munshi, while the audience started murmuring amongst itself now, sensing a clash between activists and operators.
Professor Girish Kumar of IIT another familiar face and voice at cell phone tower seminars, cited a number of figures before rounding off with reference to Ramakrishna’s statement about no cohesive scientific link between cell phone antennae and cancer saying, “There is paid research too. Which means scientists are often being paid to write what operators' want.”
For physician and diabetologist, Dr A Gokani, “Overuse of the cell phone must be watched out for. Also, radiation from cell phone towers is continuous and sustained. We are seeing growing incidences of polycystic ovarian disease in girls between 16 and 30 as they keep their cell phones in their hip pockets.”
Gurbir then asked Professor R V Hosur, Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) to speak. He stated that this was a debatable topic and sometimes, “perceptions become so deep rooted that they are turned into beliefs, and diseases like cancer are extremely complex, one cannot link it to one particular cause, even certain foods are carcinogenic.” Hosur reacted to Prof. Girish Kumar’s earlier statement about paid research and about how scientists may be paid to write saying, “not every scientist sells his integrity. Even if a particular study may be financed by a corporate house, it does not mean that scientists are paid to write what the corporate house wishes. It is not just that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) the have integrity.” Take that Prof. Girish Kumar. Ji Hosur. Ji Hosur.
Gurbir passed the baton to journalist Jatin Desai, who is so left wing that if he gets any more left, he might keel over altogether. Desai though had a different take on the radiation issue as he spoke about nuclear radiation plants. The crux of Desai’s speech was that nuclear power plants and waste are impacting coastal fishing in places like Kutch and Gujarat, so Indian fishermen are forced to go deeper into the water, “they stray into Pakistan territory and are caught and imprisoned in that country. I have been working to get these fishermen free. This is why the most stringent opposition to nuclear reactors is coming from the fishermen.”
As Gurbir started indicating that the clock was ticking, so as to leave some time for an interactive session later, Ramakrishna stated that the activists were “alarmists.” The alarm so to speak, rang for a question and answer session in which a student evoked laughter when he asked Dr Gokani, “If girls should not keep their cell phones in their hip pockets where should they keep them?” Dr Gokani stated, “in their bags.” A teacher was cut short when she tried to intervene saying that the discussion was too technical and the children had not understood much. Yet, the children asked intelligent questions about nuclear disasters like Fukushima (Japan) and then, the press too got in some questions, towards the end of the 2-hour, 15 minute meet.
A journalist questioned Juhi Chawla’s expertise on the subject. An obviously annoyed Juhi who tried to cover up by smiling got into a long winded explanation about how mobile phones work, counter-questioned the journalist whether he knew how they worked and stated that, “my knowledge is more than yours.” In the end, Gurbir had to remind Juhi who was telling children about limiting cell phone usage, about time constraints. As the curtains fell on a stimulating session it was evident that it would be a long time before there was any resolution on cell phone towers. Yet, there are questions that hang in the air. Can one afford to wait for cohesive, scientific proof of a link between cell phone tower antennae and cancer? Years from now, maybe more than 25 years, would we think that we should not have waited at all? One simply does not have all these answers. But, that does not mean one should stop asking questions.