Activists say that cell phone towers are unauthorised constructions violating building bye-laws and cannot be regularised.

Bengaluru authorities move to tax regularise cell phone towers Activists opposedImage for representation only
news Civic Issues Sunday, August 06, 2017 - 18:24

By R Eswarraj

The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has embarked on a plan to regulate the mushrooming of cell towers across Bengaluru rooftops and add to its coffers in the process. In July, the BBMP announced a 15-day deadline within which all telecom service providers had to register their telecom towers by paying a one-time fee, failing which the towers would be demolished.

By mandating registration of the towers, the Chairman of the BBMP’s taxation committee, MK Gunashekar announced, the BBMP will generate Rs 60 crore of additional revenue for the city corporation. However, some activists have stood in opposition to the proposal from the get go.

One of the first problems they have raised against the proposal is the lack of research by the BBMP prior to announcing the decision. Activist Haneef Saheb Pajipalla points out that the BBMP proposal is based on an estimate that there are 10,000 cell phone towers in the city. However, Haneef says, Gunashekar has himself admitted that the BBMP does not have accurate records on the number of cell phone towers, with only 200 being registered with the BBMP.

This admission, Haneef argues, stems from a simple failure to monitor their growth, and conduct an accurate census. After all, he says, “Except for a few of the telecom towers, most stand tall on rooftops of buildings, and are visible to anybody’s sight, including that of the BBMP authorities.”

 While possible overestimation of numbers is a problem, he adds, the more serious difficulty is that such regularization through payments by service providers ignores the rules and regulations concerning such constructions.

“The basic fact is that the plans which have been approved for all buildings by the BBMP, do not include the towers. The construction of these buildings has been completed on the basis of adherence to the governing building bye-laws. Buildings may have completion certificates or not, but none can carry out, any addition, alteration or demolition, without prior approval from BBMP. The owner has to submit the altered plans, and get approval. If not, it is a violation of the building bye laws.”

Haneef explains that issuing notices to service providers is a red herring, since it is building owners who have to be issued notices. “It is their responsibility to bring the telecom tower operators, because building owners have committed willful violations in allowing telecoms towers on their own, out of greed for money,” he says.

Erecting telecom towers on rooftops, by constructing a bed of concrete pillars and mounting the huge structure for the tower, and installing industrial diesel generators with concrete housing for them on rooftops, he says are violations of bye-laws by building owners.

Following the notice to owners, “proceedings for demolition of that building had to be initiated for violation,” he informed Gunashekar at the meeting in July. The taxation committee Chairman in turn informed the gathering that he would have to consult the BBMP’s legal panel on the matter.

According to TH Avin, the Legal Advisor of the BBMP, however, “No legal opinion from our department, had been sought with regard to the move to regularise private telecom towers”.

Activists point out that since the controversial Akrama Sakrama scheme for regularisation of unauthorised constructions by the BBMP has been stayed by the Supreme Court, there is no provision for the corporation to regularise illegally constructed cell phone towers.  

With the 15-day deadline given by the BBMP for registering cellphone towers having ended in July, only some service providers have come forward to complete the registration process. According to Dharmprasad, AEE (Projects), BBMP, notices had been issued to 28 companies owning or operating towers in the city. “Reliance has come forward and registered 868 of its towers, and we are waiting for more. Indus Towers Limited and American Tower Corporation account for 60% and 30% of the total towers in the city.”

With the deadline having expired, the BBMP is yet to decide on its next course of action. According to the office of the taxation committee Chairman, the BBMP engineers of the city’s 198 wards have been asked to submit reports on the number of towers in their respective wards. A meeting is being called on Tuesday to decide on the future course of action.

Superintending Engineer (OFC) of the BBMP, Vijayakumar, said that the corporation would begin with cutting overhead OFC wires, which were also under the corporation’s radar, and follow this up with demolition of rooftop cell phone towers.

On the legal grounds for the entire scheme, BBMP officials point to the Draft notification on cell phone towers dated February 24, 2016, issued by the Urban Development Department. The draft notification of the regulations, however, has not  been finalized, according to the Under Secretary of the Urban Development Department. Avin too confirms that the draft of the new rules are yet to come into formal effect.

Haneef points out that there are health concerns with regard to the presence of cell phone towers in densely inhabited areas. While there is an evolving consensus that cell phone towers do not contribute to a health risk, some studies suggest the contrary. “It is important that civic authorities, rather than aiming at revenue, should remember the guidelines of the Department of Telecommunications, which are against erecting telecom towers within the city, especially in residential areas. Can the revenue generated from such telecom towers in such an undesirable manner, take care of the ill health that may have been caused to its residents”, asks Haneef.

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