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Tower troubles

Why safety fears need a more mature response

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

A World Health Organisation (WHO) expert has argued in a presentation to the department of telecommunications that the government's order to sharply bring down the permissible level of radiation emitted by cell phone towers is counterproductive. His contention is that as radiation and strength of signals from a tower go down, the receiving handset has to work harder - emit more radiation - to make up. This creates a health hazard, particularly because the handset is physically close to the user. Since the current Indian standards allow radiation at around one-tenth of the earlier international standards, it appears that the department of telecommunications may have gone overboard in seeking to respond to health activists' concerns. It has to be recognised that two diametrically opposite mindsets and interests are at play. Activists in the areas of health and environment are often accused of fanatical caution while having a limited knowledge of relevant scientific matters. On the other hand, wireless telecom service providers have opposed the new standards since they will add to costs. The WHO expert has warned that introducing newer and more powerful technologies in the future can become difficult since this will inevitably entail higher levels of radiation from wireless towers. Given the selective use and highlighting of scientific facts, it is necessary to carefully avoid pitfalls in determining policy.

The new standards were adopted after a committee of experts was asked to make its recommendations. However, the department of telecommunications says that only a few countries in the world have such high safety standards. What is more, one more expert committee has been appointed to look into the matter and all sections of should be able to make their submissions before it. The new committee should certainly consider whether issues like high density of population in India and low body mass index and fat of Indians require Indian regulations to be tailored to local conditions. If the new committee finds that the latest regulations have gone overboard and erred on the side of caution, the country is being burdened with unnecessary costs when keeping telecommunications cheap is a development imperative. It should also be noted that while fixing new stringent norms for cell phone towers, the department of telecommunications has also issued norms for radiation from handsets. If these standards will inevitably be breached in order to comply with the new norms for towers, then the department of telecommunications will have to revisit the regulations. It seems that if you fall in line with one, you will have to fall out of line with the other. Clearly, an irrational over-reaction to claims of a lack of safety can create problems. The only answer will come through careful examination of global best practices and, at the same time, keeping in mind India's special conditions.

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First Published: Tue, December 17 2013. 21:38 IST