When was the last time you saw a sparrow? They no longer flit around window sills, peck at grains or chirp noisily in the backyard; sparrows seem to have disappeared completely.
Over the past decade, Mumbai has seen a stark depletion in the number of small-sized common birds; birdwatchers say the number of sparrows in the city has dropped by a shocking 90 percent in the last couple of years.
The cause: our love for cellphones and fascination for Blackberrys, Androids and iPhones that has become one of the major threats to birds. Ditto for bees.
Scientists suggest that the radiation form mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world; the abrupt disappearance of sparrows and the bees is just the beginning.
A 10-member expert panel headed by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) Director, Dr Asad Rahmani, submitted a report to the Ministry of Environment and Forests on 12 October this year with a list of recommendations to minimise exposure levels of wildlife to electromagnetic radiations.
The issue of 'disappearing birds and bees' was raised in the Lok Sabha in August last year, following which the expert committee was asked to study the 'possible impacts of mobile towers on wildlife including birds and bees'.
Although, sparrows are tough birds, in Mumbai they have been subjected to an unholy combination of challenges that has broken their hardy backs.
Where have all the sparrows gone?
Sparrows are now making their winged presence felt in the city's list of endangered species. "The disappearance of the highly adaptable sparrow is the first warning signal for humans," says Rahmani, the director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Sparrows being very sensitive to the environment are one of the most preferred indicators of the urban ecosystem. A declining population of the bird is a clear indicator that something is wrong with the water you drink and the air you breathe.
At the same time, the abnormally high population of house crows that thrive on the garbage generated in the city, preying on eggs and nestlings of small birds has turned Mumbai into "a city of crows and no more of sparrows," sulks birdwatcher Janardan Iyer. Echoing him is another Mumbai resident Chris Valentino, "I remember I used to feed them pulses when in school; over the years they are nowhere."
This is what the committee has suggested:
Mobile phone towers are being installed in a haphazard manner across the urban area without any guidelines whatsoever. With nearly 800 million Indians using mobile phones, making it the second largest mobile phone subscriber population in the world after China, it is estimated that by 2013, India will have over one billion cellphone connections. In the absence of any policy on infrastructure development, that will spell destruction for urban flora and fauna.
The study says that radiation from mobile towers affects the reproductive and nervous system of sparrows and bees. The Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMR) from mobile towers acts as an irritant to the birds and bees, making them shy away from mating. The babies are often born with deformities due to the EMR interfering with their biological system.
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The Electromagnetic Radiations from cellphones induce misdirection in the navigation ability of the honeybee. The waves make the bees disoriented. They go away from the hive and never come back because they can no longer find it.
The committee has stressed on minimising exposure levels by adopting stricter norms, as those followed in countries like Russia, China and New Zealand. "There is an urgent need to focus more scientific attention to this area before it would be too late," cautions the expert committee.
Recognising EMF/EMR as a pollutant and introducing a law has been recommended by the committee as the first step to protect the urban flora and fauna. Besides removing the existing problematic towers, displaying bold signs and messages indicating danger on the cellphone towers has been called for. To help monitor the population of birds and bees, the panel has recommended that the locations of cellphone towers and other EMF radiating towers along with their frequencies be made available on public domain. Keeping a gap of at least 1 km in between towers and constructing them between a height of 80 ft and 190 ft to avoid coming into the way of birds flight has also been recommended.
The study also suggests "well-designed long-term impact assessment studies" to monitor the impact of ever-increasing intensities of EMRs on the biological environment.
The report has been submitted to the Ministry of Environment and a joint meeting with the Telecom Ministry has been scheduled for December.