Mobile towers are set to invade at least 20 gardens and playgrounds in suburban Mumbai, and according to the approvals granted by the city’s municipal corporation, all the towers will belong to a single private company – Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio Infocomm.

In December 2014, three months after an improvement committee of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai agreed to allow the erection of 4G mobile towers in open spaces, the civic body granted Reliance the permission to set up 25-metre-high base transceiver stations in at least 31 of its public sites in the Bandra to Andheri belt.

The list of public open spaces includes parks, gardens, playgrounds, and some open plots, including a playground opposite a Santa Cruz-based school. In November 2014, the same committee had agreed to ban 4G mobile towers near schools and hospitals.

Risky encroachment

The issue of cell phone towers in open spaces came to light on Friday, soon after Reliance began work on the installation of a base transceiver station right barely 5 feet away from a children’s play area in Almeida Park in the Bandra neighbourhood. Residents have objected to the construction work, fearing for the physical safety of their children, the encroachment of their play space as well as potential health hazards of mobile tower radiation.

“Mobile towers are undoubtedly a necessity, but is there a need to place them in such playgrounds?” said Asif Zakaria, a municipal councillor from Bandra. “Who will take responsibility if any accidents take place?”

The bigger issue, he pointed out, is that parks, gardens and open grounds would be jeopardised by the presence of large towers in a city that is already too congested and starved of open areas. “Why should open spaces be compromised for these towers?”

The city has approximately 0.9 sq metres of open space for each of its 12 million residents, a far cry from the central government's norm of 10 sq metres per person.

Despite appeals by Zakaria and residents to stop the construction of the tower at Almeida Park, a deputy chief engineer at the corporation, Vinayak Lachke, told that the work would continue, since all approvals have been granted to Reliance.

Only Reliance

While several telecom companies are eager to set up 4G services for consumers, the municipal corporation in Mumbai admitted that it has granted permission solely to Reliance Jio Infocomm so far.

“Reliance is the only company that has been given approvals for setting up 4G towers in open spaces,” said Lachke. “This decision was taken by the corporation’s standing committee and improvement committee, but I do not know if other companies had applied for approvals too.”

The Cellular Operators Association of India, however, claimed that Reliance could not have been the only company applying for approvals.

“All companies apply to the municipality for permission to get locations for setting up towers,” said Rajan Matthew, director of the Association. “Mobile towers are put up for public good, not just for private benefit. So as far as the use of open spaces is concerned, it is for citizens to debate with the government.”