In an article in Prabhat Khabar, Prof. Ishwari Prasad had warned the government of Singur like unrest in Bihar if the proposed six asbestos plants at Goraul, Vaishali, Giddha, Koilwar, Bhojpur, Kumarbagh Industrial Area, West Champaran, Pandaul, Madhubani and Bihiya, Bhojpur by Utkal Asbestos Ltd, Nibhi company, Hyderabad Industries, A Infrastructure Ltd and Ramco company respectively are not stopped. His intervention, the struggle of villagers of Vaishali’s Chaksultan Rampur Rajdhari near Panapur in Kanhauli Dhanraj Panchayat in Goraul block and the street protest by Patna Asbestos Virodhi Nagrik Manch, Left and socialist parties on January 16, 2012 against asbestos based plants had a positive impact.
Subsequent to the conference, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met the leaders of ban asbestos movement led by Khet Bachao Jeevan Bachao Jan Sangharsh Committee (KBJBJC) and the leaders of left and socialist parties at his residence at 1, Anne Marg in Patna in the evening hours of February 13, 2013. Chief Minister promised that he will ‘puncture’ construction of asbestos factories in the State. Bihar Chief Minister expressed outrage at the granting of ‘No Objection Certificate’ by Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) to hazardous asbestos based factories in fertile agricultural lands. He phoned Chairman, BSPCB and fixed an appointment for the villagers of Vaishali and expressed his disapproval for asbestos based factories to him. Villagers met the Chairman, BSPCB. BSPCB’s Chairman spoke to District Magistrate, Vaishali and assured the villagers of necessary action for cancelling the approval given to the asbestos company’s plant.
Following Chief Minister’s intervention Bihar’s State Investment Promotion Board (SIPB) and the State Cabinet disapproved all the asbestos based industrial projects and rescinded these approvals except the one at Bihiya, Bhojpur where two units of Tamil Nadu based Ramco company’s plant was already constructed.
The villagers have been protesting against these units which have been found by BSPCB to be operating in violation of specific environmental laws. It has been violating Supreme Court’s verdict dated 27 January 1995 which paved the way for adoption of occupational health surveillance under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Guidance Manual-Asbestos Based Industries by the Union government. Besides these laws and the Court’s order, the company is in violation of the three Schedules under Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSHWC) Code 2020 which refer to hazardous asbestos mineral fiber and asbestosis, an incurable disease.
BSPCB has a consistent position against these two units of Ramco company’s hazardous asbestos plants pursuant to which Vivek Kumar Singh, as Chairman, BSPCB cancelled the Non-Objection Certificates (NOCs) given to the hazardous enterprise of Ramco company under Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and Rules 3 (1), Schedule 1 of Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules under Environment (Protection) Act 1986. These Rules deal with hazardous wastes generated during the production of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials including asbestos-containing residues, discarded asbestos and dust/particulates from exhaust gas treatment.
Following the cancellation of NOCs, the company approached the Appellate Authority to appeal against the cancellation. At the time of their appeal the Appellate Authority happened to be Vivek Kumar Singh himself who as Chairman, Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) had cancelled their NOCs. The company used this apparent violation of the principle of natural justice as a ground to seek relief from the Patna High Court. It got the relief. Instead of confirming its order asking the State government to rectify the error by appointing a person as Appellate Authority in compliance with the principle of natural justice and unmindful of the fact that the fact of violation of environmental laws has not been disputed, the High Court allowed the company to operate its plant. But now that the Appellate Authority has been changed as per Court's directions and the error has been rectified and now the High Court has asked the Chairman, BSPCB to act after examining the complaint against it, the matter is before you.
BSPCB's legal action could not become effective because of the order of a single judge bench of Patna High Court on the limited ground of violation of natural justice. The order of Justice Jyoti Sharan dated 30 March, 2017 had directed the Chief Secretary, State of Bihar to rectify the error of Chairman of the BSPCB and the Appellate Authority being the same person.
It is a fact that the Court’s order did not dispute the finding of the Board with regard to violation of the environmental laws. It did not dispute that as asbestos and asbestos based industries are heavily polluting and have been categorised as R24 in the Red Category. (Source: http://bspcb.bih.nic.in/Categorization_10.10.18_new.pdf)
Subsequently, a Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justices Ajay Kumar Tripathi and Niku Agrawal passed another order modifying the previous order in the Bihar State Pollution Control Board v. Ramco Industries Ltd. on 30 April, 2018 (Letters Patent Appeal No.873 of 2017 In Civil Writ Jurisdiction Case No. 421 of 2017. The order authored by Justice Tripathi reads: "Since Mr. Vivek Kumar Singh no longer happens to be the Chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board, therefore, one of the reasons provided by the learned Single Judge for interfering with the order no longer holds good. It is left open to the new Chairman of Bihar State Pollution Control Board to pass a fresh order in accordance with law after hearing the parties." Source: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/85967218/
The legal action taken by the BSPCB against the asbestos based factories of Ramco Industries Limited is praiseworthy. As a follow up of BSPCB’s previous action in this regard, there is a need to address the public health crisis as a consequence of ongoing unscientific and illegal disposal of hazardous and carcinogenic asbestos waste. The violation of all the general and specific conditions laid down in the NOC given by the BSPCB and the environmental clearance given by the Experts Appraisal Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change by the company's factories in question is crying for attention.
The following news broadcasts have captures the situation in Bihiya, Bhojpur-
1. Ramco Company: सरकार के साथ साथ दे रही जनता को धोखा, 2. रामको कंपनी ने बिहिया को बनाया डस्टबिन, 3.Asbestos के Sale व Use को Bihar में अब रोक दीजिए Nitish जी, नहीं तो बच्चे ऐसे ही सो जाते रहेंगे, and
The following methods in disposing of asbestos waste (dust and fibers) by the company in question has been noticed at the site of both the units of Ramco company:
1. Using excavators the broken sheets are crushed and buried deep inside factory premises. The broken pieces pose a grave threat to the ground water shared by fertile agricultural land and villagers who use it for drinking purposes.
2. Since there is no space to bury the asbestos waste and broken asbestos products are sold to fictitious or known dealers on ex- factory basis to discard the company's responsibility for disposal. Normally, the destination of such disposal will be in remote locations and buried on fertile lands or used for land filling and covered by sand permanently. It seems to be a corporate crime but logical from the company's perspective as no one will pay 4 times the cost for transportation for a zero value material.
3. The broken ast based sheets are cut inside the factory into unmarketable sizes like 1 meter length and gifted as CSR activities. The cutting process emits a lot of asbestos dust and fibers harmful for the workers and villagers.
4. Broken asbestos sheets and wastes during transit handling or from customer end are brought to depot at various locations to harden top soil or land filling which again poses a threat to groundwater. Cutting broken bigger asbestos sheets also pose danger as asbestos fibers become airborne.
5. Wherever cement is handled in bags inside the factory it creates occupational hazard for workers due to asbestos dust particles. This is a threat to villagers as well because the air quality in the area gets polluted.
6. Ramco Industries Limited has been donating asbestos based roofs to the nearby Mahtin Mai temple and to the parking space of the District Magistrate's office as an exercise in ethical positioning of its brand and as a public relations exercise. The villagers, temple devotees and the district administration have been taken for a ride. They have acted in complete ignorance of the Board's action against Ramco's factories.
The stance of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who has declared in the State Assembly that Bihar Government will not allow construction of carcinogenic asbestos factories in the state on 1st July, 2019 is worthy of appreciation. This announcement and the verdict by the Italian Court vindicates the anti-asbestos struggle by villagers of Bhojpur.
BSPCB's action with regard to carcinogenic white chrysotile asbestos mineral fiber has been consistent with what is published on National Health Portal (NHP), Centre for Health Informatics (CHI), National Institute of Health and Family Welfare (NIHFW), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Government of India. The National Health Portal states that “All forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) are in use because of their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack. Chemically, asbestos minerals are silicate compounds, meaning they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to asbestos (including chrysotile) causes cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings).” The asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), and plaques, thickening and effusion in the pleura.” It observes that “Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibers in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable asbestos materials.”
In such a backdrop, it is quite distressing that Ramco company's factories in Bihiya managed to get relief from Patna High Court on a procedural ground of violation of natural justice. Now that the procedural error has been rectified, the operation of the two units of Ramco asbestos company must be stopped. Its operation is a case of environmental health lawlessness. It has violated every specific and general condition which has been stipulated in the environmental clearance and the No Objection Certificate.
It is necessary to initiate preventive action in the face of tycoons, officials and ministers facing criminal charges and imprisonment for their act of knowingly subjecting unsuspecting people to killer fibers of asbestos in Europe. The future will be no different for the culprits in India. It is quite clear from the Court’s order that Chairman, BSPCB has to re-issue the “fresh order in accordance with the law after hearing the parties” and reiterate its earlier order against the both the asbestos based units in Bihiya, Bihar.
(Photo: Prof. Ishwari Prasad with Awadhesh Narayan Singh, Chairman, Bihar Legislative Council, Dr. Barry Castleman, Justice Rekha Kumari and Advocate Dr Gopal Krishna addressing conference environmental and occupational health in Patna)
The closure of both the units will be a genuine tribute to the memory of Prof. Ishwari Prasad who wished Bihar to be a asbestos free and asbestos related disease free state, worthy of emulation by other states.