Tower-ing Crisis?

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Are mobile towers nuisance, health hazard or just a modern tool of connectivity is debatable. But with more than seven hundred towers in Srinagar city alone, both lifestyle and landscape is changing fast. Saima Bhat reports.

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In 2010, when a telecom company approached, Ghulam Qadir Magrey, a retired government employee, with a proposal to install a Base Transceiver Station (BTS), in his courtyard in Barzulla area of Srinagar, he agreed happily. “I was happy that post retirement I will be earning again,” said Magrey.

The part of the offer was when his unemployed son, a diploma holder, was appointed as BTS’s attendant. Besides, Magrey’s house will be connected to a diesel generator 24×7.

However, immediately after the installation of BTS, that helps keep mobile network up, Magrey sensed a change in his neighbours’ attitude. It was kind of social boycott. “I was shocked to see that all of a sudden everybody stopped talking to me,” recalls Magrey. The reason was BTS or mobile tower installed in his front lawn. “I fail to understand why they were reacting in such a way when these towers are approved by the state government.”

The reason behind his neighbour’s concern was a radio discussion regarding the hazardous effects of BTS in residential areas.

In February 2016, as per Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Jammu and Kashmir have a tele density of 79.50 per cent. The major mobile service providers in J&K are Airtel having 3336575 connections, Aircel: 2524344, BSNL: 1279230, Vodafone: 1057201, Reliance: 927846 and Idea: 618001 connections.

As per the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), to keep all these mobile phones connected, 16764 BTS’ are installed at 8554 sites across J&K (figure 1). In Kashmir valley alone there are around 4000 BTS. The numbers of towers increase with the increasing number of mobile users.

For a hassle free connectivity two types of towers are required: infill – for connectivity within an area; and expansion stage – for connectivity between two areas. Installation of BTS is done after a thorough survey by a GPS team. They chose three best possible spots, ideal for providing maximum coverage to the mobile users. After getting the necessary permission from the local municipality and power department, the land is acquired on lease for twenty years. Then the construction of BTS towers is commissioned to a local contractor. “Each tower needs at least 1200 sq ft of land for installation,” said Mudasir Ashraf Jan, CEO Valley Constructions, who handles most of the infrastructure, expansion and maintenance for Bharati Infratel. “This area includes space for a diesel generator (DG) set.”

Presently Bharati Infratel has 1384 mobile towers installed from Qazigund in south Kashmir to Tangdar in north Kashmir. A single unit costs between Rs 12 and 15 lakh, including electric part of the equipment. “Electric part alone costs around Rs 8 lakh,” said Jan, who started his journey in 2006. At present Jan has a workforce of around 200 employees, handling almost entire Airtel’s work in Kashmir.

An antenna is mounted on top of a mobile tower to receive and transmit Radio Frequency (RF) signals. The signals are then sent and stored in a cabinet at the base of the tower. The equipment in the cabinet includes radio transmitters and receivers, DC power and rectifiers, back-up batteries and cell site routers. Power is fed into the cabinet by an underground cable.

A BTS tower can manage around fifteen thousand calls at a time, however, it decreases if the data usage is more in any particular area. “Number of towers in an area entirely depends on a number of users,” said Jan. “Increasing call drops mean there is a need for more infill towers.”

In order to reduce call drop rates and mange costs, telecom companies are now sharing the tower facility. “A single tower is used by more than one service provider now,” said Jan.

The rent for land, on which a tower is built, depends on the area and location. A tower in Srinagar costs around Rs 15,000 a month, while in rural areas it is at least Rs 6,000. “But that is not all,” said Jan. “There are other costs as well.”

A telecom company has to pay Rs 1 lakh as application fee to erect a new tower, while re-location of a tower costs Rs 1.5 lakh. In case of an additional operator, the company has to pay Rs 50 thousand, over and above the application fee. Besides, telecom companies must seek permission from the Pollution Control Board (PCB) for using a diesel generator set at the tower site.

“They have to maintain its noise up to 50 DB only,” said Abdul Raza, chairman PCB.

In Srinagar city 704 towers are registered with Municipal Corporation (SMC) – Aircel (46), Airtel (220), BSNL (128), GTL (05), Rcom (115), Rjio (45), Tower (43), TVS IC (09), Viacom (01), Vodafone (115), and Tata Indicom (17).

However, since 2012, there is confusion between SMC and TRAI. “Telecom companies have not paid an annual fee to SMC saying they pay it to TRAI,” said an SMC officer who wishes not to be named. “They say we are not entitled to pay it to local bodies.”

The matter is currently before the High Court, Srinagar. Till March 31, 2016, BSNL owes SMC Rs 3.67 crores, Airtel Rs 2.18 crores, Aircel Rs 96 lakhs, Tower Vision Rs 1 crore, Vodafone 1.15 crores, Reliance Rcom Rs 2.22 crores. “Collectively it is more than Rs 10 crore. This money could have been used for upgradation of facilities in Srinagar,” said the official.

Interestingly, on April 10, 2016, Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) came up with a set of guidelines for tower installation.

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The policy restricts the installation of towers on schools buildings, hospitals and dispensaries. It also has multiple fee charges clauses including onetime installation charge, renewal charge, sharing charge and increment of renewal charges every 5 years by 25 per cent, and restriction on a number of the operator in sharing of sites.

However, in Kashmir, there is no restriction on the installation of towers near schools, colleges or hospitals.

In 2006, Airtel’s main tower, connecting fourteen small towers, was installed in Haji Wali Mohammad’s courtyard in Kulgam district of south Kashmir. In 2011, Wali was approached by Reliance for installation of their tower, in the same courtyard. Like before, Wali didn’t consult his two sons and gave a nod. Now, after learning about the perils of installing a tower inside their courtyard, Wali’s family is adamant not to renew the contract with either Airtel or Reliance.

“I don’t know if these towers are really harmful, but our entire family suffers from hypertension,” said Wali’s daughter-in-law Mariya, who is in her mid-thirties.

Mariya’s six-year-old son has weak immunity; he is under weight, he catches cough and cold frequently. “Even elders in the family have weak immunity. We cannot eat outside food at all,” said Mariya.

Mariya’s mother-in-law, who raises vegetables at her small kitchen garden, has noted a visible reduction in yield since towers were installed.

In 2010, Prof Girish Kumar, department of electrical engineering, IIT Bombay, submitted a report on cell tower radiation saying, “Being exposed to a mobile tower located within 50 mtrs of your home or workplace is like being in a microwave oven for 24 hours.”

There are reports that blame radiation from these towers can even cause cancer. But experts believe cancer happens in extreme cases only.

People living close to towers in Kashmir complained of sleep disturbances, headaches, fatigue, and pain in joints.

Dr Sonaullah Kuchey, head of oncology department at SMHS, says that so far it has not been proven that the radiations from these towers are harmful. “Whatever we hear or read is confusing.” He says, “We are still new in this set-up, we got mobiles in 2003 and it takes 20 or 30 years to develop brain tumours if they can do so.”

Meanwhile, he also says that the mobile towers release non-ionising radiations which are not harmful to human. Ionising radiations, which are harmful, are released by X-rays, gamma rays, beta rays.

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