Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) that works for Asbestos Free India inspired by trade union leader Purnendu Majumadar. Occupational Health India and ToxicsWatch Alliance are its members that includes doctors, researchers and activists. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims. It works with trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. For Details: 1715krishna@gmail.com

Friday, February 25, 2011

Blinded by profit, Bihar plans to open 12 asbestos factories

Lives of poor come cheap

Anuradha Dutt

Blinded by profit, Bihar plans to open 12 asbestos factories

For policy-makers, industrial development, sometimes, entails jeopardising the health of citizens, who lack a voice and recourse to remedial action. The plan to set up 12 asbestos factories in Bihar falls in this category. Muzaffarpur, Bhojpur, Vaishali, Champaran and Madhubani are the sites for the plants, which will produce asbestos sheets and the like, using raw material imported from countries such as Canada, Russia, Kazakhastan and China. The health hazards posed by asbestos are widely known, with some types of cancer, among other maladies, being ascribed to the effects of the fibre, used to make roofs and walls in dwellings of the poor. But then, to recall a well-tested adage, the lives of the poor come cheap for those at the helm of power.

India is among the countries that have chosen to ignore warnings issued in this regard by World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation, and allowed use of asbestos products even if mining was gradually phased out since 1989 under growing international pressure. Opponents are worried about concerted lobbying by the rich and powerful asbestos industry, here and abroad, to persuade the Indian Government to lift the ban on mining, and promote the use of the fibre. They are especially concerned that Canada, which is trying hard to revive its asbestos industry, has been focussing on India as a huge potential market and business ally. And local industrial collaborators, with many reported to be close to the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre, have also been pushing for lifting the mining ban and encouraging use of the fibre.

Ban Asbestos Network of India, an alliance of civil society groups, which has been trying to highlight the issue and help other rights bodies mobilise people in Bihar against the setting up of the plants in their State, condemns Canada’s duplicity. For, while seeking markets in India and other emerging economies, it has adopted a no home-use policy even as it decontaminates buildings. A memorandum of understanding was signed on December 31, 2010, between the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal and the Indian Merchants’ Chamber on the supposedly safe use of asbestos. This occurred just before a trade mission to India. The Indian Supreme Court, which is hearing a PIL to ban asbestos completely, has taken note of the fact that Canada strictly regulates the use of asbestos under its Hazardous Products Act and the Environmental Protection Act, but produced 1,80,000 tonnes of the mineral in 2009. An estimated 96 per cent was exported, according to the US Geological Survey. India constitutes a primary market.

It is not as if policy-makers here are unaware of the dangers posed by the fibre. As far back as the late 1960s, they took note of the fact. After 30 workers from Roro mines in Chaibasa, West Singhbhum district — in Jharkhand now — died of asbestosis. P Mazumdar, a trade union leader, campaigned for occupational health rights. The late Indrajit Gupta, CPI MP, raised the issue in Parliament. Opponents continued to draw attention to the dangers posed by asbestos and pushed for using safe alternatives, but industry lobbyists ensured that the ban on mining was not extended to the use of this fibre. Profit over principles is another well-tested adage. This explains India’s ambivalence with regard to trade in asbestos. Mining is banned but import, manufacture and use of products is permitted. A People’s Union for Civil Liberties report on the Bihar plants calls for an immediate halt to the work at all the sites, while stating that “Bihar cannot be made the dumping ground of hazardous production, exposing the people here to all kinds of risks because they are poor”.

And that is the crux of the matter, with free trade, under the guise of economic liberalisation, being deliberately construed by commercial buccaneers and political underlings as license to ride roughshod over health concerns, human rights, land ownership issues and environmental imperatives. In the present instance, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is reported to have deflected blame on the Union Government for having approved the setting-up of the factories. In the wake of a six-month long campaign against the setting-up of a plant in Muzaffarpur’s Chainpur-Bishunpur area, Mr Nitish Kumar attempted to clarify his Government’s stand on the issue at a Press conference in New Delhi on February 2. He claimed not to have granted permission, and pressed for suspending asbestos factories throughout India. He rued the absence of a uniform policy in this regard.

According to BANI, clearance for the project has been granted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, State Pollution Control Board, State Investment Promotion Board and the State Industry Board. However, since health is a State subject, the Government of Bihar can certainly spike the plan. Opponents feel that industrial lobbies are at work to ensure that the project is not scrapped. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court wants Parliament to bring in a suitable law. The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill is pending since 2009, and opponents are hoping that it will be taken up and the ban on the asbestos trade made legally binding.

February 26, 2011

The Pioneer

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