The information provided by the department of telecommunications (DoT) on the Sanchar Tarang website is self-certified by the tower operator. Let that sink in for a while. It is like saying that your driving licence is issued to your basis self-certification.
As per the DoT's public-private-participation (PPP) join venture with the telecom industry, there are 6,06,296 (6.06 lakh) mobile phone towers all over India and 22,11,593 (22.11 lakh) base transmitting stations (BTS) that go with them. A typical BTS is supposed to support one to six antennae but it is not unusual to see 20 or more crowding multiple towers at a location that shows one single tower on their own Tarang Sanchar website. Do the maths.
Check it out for yourself. Each of those rectangular boxes or circular dishes hanging on the mast atop or from the tower is one antenna. And antennae are becoming smaller as well as stronger every day. An antenna that can send out a beam strong enough to disable all the people on a ship 200 metres away is no longer science fiction, as some seafarers on a small little Norwegian warship found out when they came too close to a huge warship of another country a few years ago, and it was eventually put down to a radar that had not been switched off.
Or in this case about 22 years ago, when an Indian ship got too close to an American warship, and paid the price. Faulty radio waves were eventually blamed here too. Ships have all kinds of antennae and if they send or receive signals perceived to be dangerous, then bad things happen, as will surely happen with the uncontrolled tower expansion in India.
So, just how many actual legit antennae do we have on telecom towers in India? We are not counting here the other whip or older legacy antennae or huge dish antennae in the vicinity for other reasons, which cannot really be discussed here for fear of sedition laws. One of the strong points of 3G and then 4G, for example, was that it made eavesdropping difficult. One of the realities of life that I, as a certified mariner with skill sets and more certification, albeit now expired, in legacy and satellite communications, have never understood is what are all those extra listening in type antennae doing all over the place? Commercial espionage is probably just one part of it.
So what is the reality of this portal Sanchar Tarang for information sharing on mobile towers and electromotive force (EMF) compliances? Let's start with some clarifications first.
In the rapidly emerging world of telecom, a mobile phone tower can now also be an "L" bracket along a wall, a mast on a truck or boat, and soon even a knapsack over your shoulders. As long as it can carry an antenna or antennae, it becomes a tower as defined by our department of telecommunications. All that the tower needs is power. A lot of it, actually, enough to require a generator of sizeable capacity for applications up to 4G.
What is EMF? Electromagnetic force, which is a polite word for radiation, just like turbo-charger was the enhanced word for economiser. To give an example, a telecom tower pumping out EMF sounds just fine and dandy even if it is right outside our window or over our head, but our favourite packet of gouda going through the radiation from a security check machine is an affront to freedom and also considered unsafe for the cheese.
Tarang Sanchar is an interesting portal, allegedly in English and Hindi, but the moment you click on the Hindi button - it takes you back to a complicated sign-on page which not only records your location in precise latitude and longitude terms, grabs full details of the device you are operating from (preferably laptop or computer because it does not seem to work on smartphones) but also demands your mobile phone number and email address. All for what? For looking at a map of India with the telecom towers added on.
Not more than three times. After that you are stopped from looking any more. Within those three times, you get the opportunity to click on a tower, and learn nothing real other than what appears to be fiction. You are also enabled to get more of the fiction by email, like this one for example –
Just in case you had any doubts, this is a government of India website, presumably paid for out of the taxpayer’s money. We, the "public", as they so generously put it.
So what is the fictional part of this EMF exposure status, considering that it is all of less than 40-45 metres from my home, where I am typing this out, with varying levels of headaches, tinnitus, brain strokes and more to keep me happy? I guess it makes me feel like bionic man, and maybe more intelligent too, but that's not how I know all this tech stuff. I know much of this tech stuff because I used to work on ships where we were taught a lot about transmitters, receivers, radars, wireless, not just how to operate them, but also how to repair them and the risks as well as precautions therein. And the risks of radiation.
The information provided by the department of telecommunications on the Sanchar Tarang website is self-certified by the tower operator. Let that sink in for a while. It is like saying that your driving licence is issued to your basis self-certification.
Today, a hand-held device that can measure EMF with about 99.5% accuracy, costs between Rs3000 and Rs5000 online, easy to use and read. The better ones will also tell you the distance from the source of the EMF or radiation, and provide you an estimate of the radiation at the mast itself. Like thermometers, they can be used to measure EMF at home or at the workplace also, and it is no coincidence that the in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic right next to D-58 shut shop and went away. Because, like thermometers, hospitals with machines that motivate excess radiation or EMF (same thing, remember) pretty much issue them to all staffers who are likely to come in contact with EMF/radiation.
Think of the way the complete process of taking an X-ray has changed in the last few decades. From people hanging around in the X-ray room, which could be any little cubicle somewhere, to an X-Ray machine in a very cold and isolated hall away from everyone else - even the operator is behind a secure wall with protective glass.
And here we have telecom towers right next door!
Technology is inevitable, but safety is paramount, so how do they do it in other countries - especially in densely populated cities?
1) The transmitters and receivers are, simply, safer. And maintained to impeccable conditions. Nobody lies about radiation. Something amiss - the antennae shut down, that's it. There are always enough back-ups, and much of really important data flows through a pipeline using wire.
2) The towers are way higher. Why are they not higher in India? Because it is cheaper to keep them lower where densities are high. Simple as that. More towers to absorb the high peak demand. Easier to bounce from one tower to the other. Fewer permissions the lower you keep the masts. And they cannot be seen that easily.
3) Most importantly - there is awareness in the people. The websites designed to provide information are certainly not based on self-certification by the tower operators. And most of all, as a citizen (different from "the public") asking for an audit is done in secrecy, without tipping off the tower operator in advance.
In the midst of all this, we are going to see a 5G rollout, where the number of towers required will be five to 10 times higher?
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(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life.)