Zero bars: Tihar network jammers cripple mobile services in Delhi vicinity | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times
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Zero bars: Tihar network jammers cripple mobile services in Delhi vicinity

May 05, 2024 09:30 AM IST

500 houses and 50 shops of C4 and C5 blocks in Janakpuri are collateral damage of the 15 phone jammers installed inside Tihar to curb use of phones by prisoners

Vijay Batra, 55, in the middle of a nap on a Sunday afternoon, was woken up by the incessant ringing of his landline phone. A distant relative requested a favour — an online money transaction. Though a 60-second chore, Batra knew it would take a lot longer. The app would open on his smartphone, but the wait for the one-time password (OTP) would be endless, frustrating. After multiple attempts, he reluctantly took out his scooter, and rode about 500m just to get the OTP to finish the transaction. Batra does this multiple times a week as Janakpuri C5A block, where he lives with his wife and her mother, receives little to no phone network.

A bird’s-eye view of C5 Block in Janakpuri in Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT photo)
A bird’s-eye view of C5 Block in Janakpuri in Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT photo)

The reason? The area’s proximity to Tihar jail, India’s largest prison complex.

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Tihar houses at least 20,000 inmates, and has 15 phone jammers installed inside the complex to curb the illegal use of mobile phones by prisoners. Its famous inmates include gangsters Lawrence Bishnoi and Chhota Rajan, conman Sukesh Chandrashekhar, and Santosh Kumar Singh, who raped and murdered Priyadarshini Mattoo, a law student, in 1996. The latest high-profile inmate of Tihar jail is Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Delhi Prisons’ director-general Sanjay Beniwal said the complex also has three harmonious call blocking system (T-HCBS) towers, and last month, the administration began the process of installing another 15 phone jammers.

The 500 houses and 50 shops of C4 and C5 blocks in Janakpuri are collateral damage.

“Till the early 2000s, there was no problem at all as people mostly relied on landline phones, and till 2010, we could use our mobile phones with ease even though the network was slightly weak. It has gradually worsened since, and now we cannot use our phones without WiFi. SMS and carrier calls don’t go through at all,” lamented Batra, who is also the general secretary of the C5A block RWA.

Tihar jail received over 100 complaints from residents of the two blocks last year – about how a power cut (when WiFi doesn’t work) means a complete communication blackout; how delivery agents don’t make it to the location because they are unable to make calls; how UPI payments don’t go through; and how OTPs and other important SMSes from banks don’t get delivered on time. “We received several complaints last year, but our aim is to focus on security inside the jail so that inmates cannot use a mobile phone illegally or communicate with anyone outside,” said Beniwal.

Not that this has changed things inside the jail. In 2023, at least 350 phones were recovered from inmates across Tihar, Mandoli, and Rohini prison complexes; around 200 were recovered from across three jails in 2022; and less than 100 in 2021, said a Delhi Prisons official.

“Most phones seized were Kechaoda phones, which are smaller in size and can be smuggled in by concealing it in body cavities. There are some corners within the prison complexes where the cellphone jammers do not work. Inmates have identified those locations. Also, in some corners, only a specific service operator’s SIM card works. It is different for different locations within the prison complexes,” the official said.

The problem is so acute that property rates, specifically of homes in this block, have fallen — new buyers are quickly deterred, and property dealers are reluctant to take on C4 and C5 block clients. A property dealer in Janakpuri, who asked not to be named, said that while a 2BHK house in B block – which is not impacted by this problem – is valued at 1.2- 1.4 crore, the ones in C4 and C5 blocks are often sold for less than 1 crore.

Only a few years ago, when Tripta Khutel, 60, the block’s RWA president, found out that her son wanted to move closer home, she strongly advised him against it. “He wanted to move closer to us, but I didn’t let him. We don’t get any phone signal here. It becomes difficult to call people; it will be tough to work from home; and delivery of goods too is a task. Eventually, he bought a home in Dwarka,” said Khutel, who moved to the area 19 years ago.

Pawas Jain, 35, started working as a property dealer in Janakpuri 12 years ago, and has seen all the changes the real estate market has gone through there – from DDA-style flats and houses back then to builder floors with stilt parking now.

Jain’s modest office is in C5B block, barely 30m away from the prison complex’s boundary wall. “Prospective buyers see the houses, like them too, but become wary when they figure out the problem. They realise how acute it is when they have trouble getting in touch with me. My phone is constantly outside coverage area. My own livelihood is in trouble,” said Jain.

HT reached out to Airtel,Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi), and Jiowho declined to comment. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the apex body of telecom operators in the country, has not responded to queries seeking comment.

Pawan Singhal, a businessman, moved to C5B block with his wife last November. For the last month, he has been frequenting the offices of local property dealers, including Jain’s office. “I am ready to leave this area. When I bought the house here, I didn’t realise how grave the situation was. When I moved here, I realised that there is absolutely no signal; even WiFi calls fail sometimes. Delivery agents get lost on their way home. They get to a point and then the GPS stops working. We rarely receive any SMS, which makes ordering items from e-commerce websites difficult,” said the 52-year-old.

This is one of the peculiar issues that Janakpuri MLA Rajesh Rishi, 59, raised in the Delhi assembly last year. He lives in C1 block, also near Tihar jail. “I have received numerous complaints regarding this issue. I understand the problems because I live near the jail too... But Tihar houses some of the country’s most notorious gangsters and criminals, and if the jammers are removed, there can be security lapses. In 2023, the jail administration changed the direction of the jammers so that they don’t face the residential colonies. There has been marginal improvement,” he said.

Property owners have trouble believing Rishi’s claim that things are better. Rohit Sharma, 32, opened a workout supplements shop, Rohit Gyms, eight years ago in C5 block. He wants to shift to another location soon, and says that shops around him are now vacant. “Most shopkeepers have sold their shops, and I want to do the same. It has become impossible to run the shop here since 2020. Customers prefer UPI payments now, but that just doesn’t work here. They can’t get in touch with me to inquire about products either, so naturally, they go to someone else,” said Sharma.

He said that despite sending multiple emails to the Tihar administration, he has not received a single response; and when he went to the prison complex, he was denied entry. “What is the common man supposed to do?” he asked.

At the Hair+ salon in the same lane, manager Rahul Tandon, 30, gets customers to log in to his WiFi account if they must do an online transaction. “Most of my regular customers are used to the set up,” he said.

Many have written the epitaph of the landline phone but in Janakpuri blocks C4 and C5, they are still an indispensable part of most households. “People find it funny when I ask them to call on my landline number. We do prefer WhatsApp calls but the most reliable way to get in touch with us is via a landline. I do believe this is not a solution though,” said SS Alag, RWA president of block C4H.

The younger lot, however, finds it harder to come to terms with a landline phone – the curled-up wire, the big buttons, the eight-digit numbers. Even these numbers are now often associated with spam calls. Twenty-two-year-old Akarshit Gupta said he has used a landline only a few times in his lifetime. “It is a strange feeling. None of my friends has a landline. But when there is a power cut and the WiFi also doesn’t work, the landline is the best way to call someone. We even have a diary of essential phone numbers next to the landline,” he said.

On another April day, Batra finds himself walking towards another block to make a call. Unlike some others, he doesn’t have the heart to sell his house. His father had bought it in the late 1970s. And so, he helped install a mobile phone booster tower near block C5A last year. “There has been some improvement, but I heard more jammers are being put inside Tihar,” Batra said. “If that happens, we will go back to zero network on our phones. What will we do then?”

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