Mumbai's housing society residents battling over mobile towers atop buildings

Sep 17, 2013, 08:14 IST | Hemal Ashar

Mobile tower radiation issues seem to have cleaved societies into two. There are those who strongly believe that radiation from the antennae on these towers leads to health problems, while others scoff that these are alarmists who have no conclusive evidence of a link between the two.

Housing expert and advocate AMEET MEHTA gives us a legal look at the mobile tower inferno and clears the air for residents of housing societies. At the same time, though, Mehta says that since this is a fairly recent development, there is a large grey area surrounding the subject and rules must be clearer for housing societies, with reference to towers.

Expert eye: Housing expert and advocate Ameet Mehta speaks on the grey areas surrounding the mobile tower issue. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

The interview:

Mobile towers on residential buildings have become the new battleground in co-operative housing societies...
Yes, they certainly have. Mumbai has approximately more than 1,628 illegal mobile towers. With the massive proliferation of mobile phone users in the city, the service providers are putting up transmitters even on dilapidated buildings. The growth of this new technology has given rise to some widespread concern about the possible ill effects of radiation and dangers perceived from falling of these towers during earthquakes with small, seismographic disturbances. 

TOWERS OF TROUBLE: Peddar Road residents protest against a building in the vicinity, which had installed mobile towers. The debate grows shriller every day, with different pockets in the city holding seminars on weekends on mobile tower radiation

Proactive Mumbaikars have been ever since demanding that the government frame proper rules for setting up mobile towers in the city. A Minister has admitted that out of 3,429 towers across the State, only 1,500 are Legal.

GLAM DOSE: Actor Juhi Chawla has become a poster girl for the anti-cell phone tower radiation movement, and is seen at a number of city seminars

Many Societies across the city have already sanctioned and allowed cell towers in their building, with a view that the income generated from these, would help them lower maintenance charges from their members. Some members of these societies after reading and hearing a lot about the hazards caused by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by these towers are now against these towers. Though these Societies want to remove existing cell towers from their Society building, they have fewer chances to succeed. Everything would depend upon the terms and conditions of the Agreement, which they have entered into with these cell phone companies.

SCIENCE SPEAKS: Dr M H Thakur at a panel discussion and interaction on the topic ‘Radiation: Myths and Realities’ organized by Nehru Science Center in Mumbai, recently, where mobile tower radiation evoked fierce debate

The government is the only mechanism, which can help regulate setting-up of these cell towers and electromagnetic radiation emitted by these towers.

Mobile companies pay a huge amount to societies for towers atop their buildings. This is a temptation for housing societies. How much money, would very averagely speaking one tower bring in?
Cell tower rentals are good sources of income for a society and its members, as they can help the society reduce maintenance collections. I would like to warn people though that the society must be careful. Health risks are often associated with the radiation. It depends on the number of members constituting the society. If it is a small society, then maintenance may reduce. The average annual rental income for the Co-operative Housing Societies (CHS) varies from company to company, ranging roughly from 4 lakh to 10 lakh and above.

Is it legal for a building to have a mobile tower? Are there any restrictions on the number of towers they can put?
No, it is not legal for a building to have a mobile tower. However due to the income to societies, the General Body approves the same. Various High Court judgments have come with this regard. The Supreme Court stayed the order of Punjab and Haryana High Court banning installation of mobile phone towers in residential areas in Punjab.

The High Court had passed the impugned order on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) alleging that installation of these towers from which radiation rays emanate were adversely affecting the health of the people in surrounding areas.

However, recently there has been news that BMC shall be restricting mobile towers as one per building only. The resolution to this effect has yet to come into force.

Do all members need to agree on a mobile tower atop their building or is it okay if a majority says yes for the tower?
All members need not agree for a mobile tower atop their society building. If your co-operative housing society wants to set up a mobile tower on the terrace, it will have to convene a general body meeting in which 70 per cent of the residents would have to agree. A Minister in Maharashtra announced this.

What if one person opposes the towers but the others are for them?
Members who suspect high radiation levels from mobile phone towers in the vicinity of their homes or in their society, can lodge complaints with the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring (TERM) Cells and also with BMC. The TERM Cells, which members can approach to lodge complaints against high radiation from mobile phone towers, conduct random checks and have the authority to close down transmission from towers with radiation beyond the permissible limit.

The TERM cells were formed by the Centre to inspect premises of telecom and Internet service providers, monitor network parameters -- including permissible levels of radiation and curb illegal activities of telecom services.

Is the chairman/Managing Committee duty bound to tell members that they have a proposal to install a tower atop the building?
Yes, the Chairman/Managing Committee cannot install mobile towers without the General Body’s knowledge. They have to pass a resolution in Annual General Body Meeting (AGM) or in Special General Body Meeting (SGM). If your CHS wants to set up a mobile tower on the terrace of the building or elsewhere, it will have to convene a General Body meeting in which more than 70 per cent of the members should agree to the said proposal. Further guidelines state that no towers to be set up near schools and hospitals.

What if the building opposite yours has installed mobile towers and you feel the towers could pose a health hazard? Could residents
living in the opposite building bring pressure on the other building to bring down the towers?

One can lodge complaints with the Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring (TERM) Cells and also with BMC.

Do you think there needs to be greater clarity with reference to a mobile tower policy on residential buildings?
Yes. The co-operative department or the housing department should take an initiative and frame clear laws on the same. If the policy is clear, it shall make life easier for societies and citizens and there shall be no confusion in implementation. Even mobile companies would find it easier to install and take necessary permissions.

Do members have to be alert towards mobile towers? Do they need to discuss having a policy in their meetings?
Of course. Two years ago, the MoEF had set up the expert committee to study the effect of mobile communication towers on wildlife. One of the concerns about the negative impact of mobile radiation has been the declining number of birds, particularly house sparrows, and bees. Bees play a crucial role not only in an agricultural economy like India’s, but also in the natural ecosystem, for they carry out processes such as pollination.

Man-made electromagnetic smog has reached such a level that the RF radiations have started having ill effects on human health, health of animals, functioning of normal household, medical investigatory equipments and even on food products being consumed by everybody.

Though this list is not intended as a diagnostic aid, the ill effects and short term effects from cell tower radiation exposure may include headaches, sleep disorders, poor memory, mental excitation, confusion, anxiety, depression, appetite disturbance and restlessness. Thus, the phenomenon is like physical and mental pollution. 

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