Make India Asbestos Free

Make India Asbestos Free
For Asbestos Free India

Journal of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI). Asbestos Free India campaign of BANI is inspired by trade union movement and right to health campaign. BANI has been working since 2000. It works with peoples movements, doctors, researchers and activists besides trade unions, human rights, environmental, consumer and public health groups. BANI demands criminal liability for companies and medico-legal remedy for victims.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Preventive Measures to Protect health of workers engaged in ship breaking industry

The Preventive measures taken by authorities to protect the health of workers engaged in ship breaking industry are as under:

• Ministry of Labour and Employment has amended the model rule on ship breaking.

• Directorate General Factory Advice Service & Labour Institutes has identified Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) for different operations carried out in the ship breaking yards. Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) has agreed to enforce the use of PPEs in the ship breaking yards and use the penal provisions available in the “Gujarat Maritime Board Ship Recycling Regulations 2003.”

• Government of Gujarat has notified Rule 68-H under the Gujarat State Factory Rules pertaining to ship building, ship repairing and ship breaking.

• The Government of Gujarat has established a separate Inspectorate of Factories at Alang headed by the Deputy Director for exclusive enforcement of the provisions in ship breaking yards. The competent persons are also declared by the Chief Inspector of Factories for the purpose for issuing certificates like Naked Light, Testing and examination of pressure vessels and lifting appliances, etc. As a result of inspection and monitoring by Inspector of Factories, some of the practices being followed in Alang included wet method for removal of Asbestos, hot work certification and use of personal protective equipments.

• Workers engaged in removal of asbestos are regularly medically examined by doctors. So far, no worker is found to be suffering from asbestosis.

This information was given by the Minister of State for Labour and Employment Shri Oscar Fernandes (Independent Charge) in a written reply in the Lok Sabha on 20 October.

Ministry of Labour & Employment

Ineffective regulation on asbestos use and its illegal waste trade makes India vulnerable to a much larger and devastating epidemic.

Ban Asbestos Network, a global toxic activists’ coalition, has called upon the Conference of the Parties of the UN Rotterdam Convention, slated for October 27-31 at Rome, to bring asbestos under its list of hazardous products such that its trade can be curtailed to protect health of unsuspecting consumers from potential harm and to make national decision-making process on its import transparent.

The call is timely, given the fact that the Indian asbestos lobby — in connivance with its Canadian counterparts — has been consistently successful in blocking a UN move to impose health information disclosures on exports of chrysotile asbestos in the past. India is the largest importer of white asbestos, called chrysotile, a product that has not only been proven carcinogenic but has invited ban on its use in as many as 50 countries.

Yet, asbestos continues to be the cheapest roofing material for the poor in the country. However, its presence in our daily lives extends beyond corrugated sheets: as floor tiles, in brake linings and as fire protection. Shockingly, however, finely powdered asbestos has sneaked as adulterant in perfumed talc and as whitener in ‘extra white basmati’ rice. Without doubt, it is neither suited to the skin nor is it a delicacy!

Conversely, it is a time bomb that is slowly ticking away. The problem with asbestos is that its fibre can hardly be destroyed, justifying its Greek derivation which means inextinguishable. It is therefore not surprising that while its selling is banned in Canada, it is the second largest exporter of asbestos after Russia. India consumes 30 per cent of asbestos exported by Canada, signifying a well-protected asbestos industry.

Else, a product banned in the European Union, Australia, Japan and New Zealand would not have been imported without impunity in India. Slashing of import duty on asbestos from 78 per cent in 1995 to 15 per cent in 2004 only helps piece the conspiracy story. No wonder, cumulative asbestos imports have touched a whopping seven million tonnes, increasing from a low annual import of 40,000 tonnes in 1960 to over 2,50,000 tonnes in 2006.

Conservative estimates indicate that over 10,000 workers are exposed to asbestos at any given time; the absence of a national cancer register makes it impossible to assess real impact. However, testimonies of workers echo the unheard pains of thousands of workers at the unregulated asbestos industry. Ravindra Mohite is one amongst them who succumbed to asbestosis in 2004.

Mahite used to work at a Ghatkopar factor in north Mumbai, interweaving asbestos fibre with polyester to make it resistant at the cost of making himself vulnerable. Like 36 others, Mohite now awaits court’s direction on compensation from the factory. The grim reality of asbestos exposure is that while mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer have been recognised around the world these have rarely been reported in India.

Since occupational health is a neglected subject with students rarely having access to standard radiological plates, mandatory for asbestosis diagnosis, the disease rarely gets diagnosed, leaving the victims with no option but to die a slow and painful death. It is however another matter that the disease was known as early as in the first century AD to Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder.

While Gujarat is an asbestos hot spot — with ship-breaking and power plants — its greatest consumers; Maharashtra is a veritable time bomb with scores of asbestos factories located at all major industrial establishments of the state viz, Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, Kalyan, Nashik, Thane and Aurangabad. Without doubt, India has become the backyard of toxic dump by the industrialised West.

Need it be said that ineffective regulation on asbestos use and its illegal waste trade makes India vulnerable to a much larger and devastating epidemic. Because it can take 30 years or more for asbestos-related cancers to be fully blown, India faces an inevitable and sharp escalation in cancer cases over the next three decades. No one is safe!

That medical ignorance and government intransigence has allowed a time bomb to slowly tick in our backyards should be a matter of serious debate in the public. How long can the absence of a national cancer registry or a system to record asbestos cancers or asbestos exposures be allowed?

By Sudhirendar Sharma
(The writer is a Delhi-based development analyst)

23 October, 2008
Deccan Herald

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