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.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nothing to gain from asbestos business

Nothing to gain

Business in carcinogenic asbestos must be restricted or outlawed

Anuradha Dutt

While economic liberalisation has bestowed immense gains on the country by way of the information technology and mobile revolutions, upgraded highways and townships and superior medical facilities, loosening curbs on trade in hazardous material and waste and mining has proved detrimental for the environment and health. As the dispute over unregulated mining in tribal belts and fragile eco-zones persists, civil activists and human rights groups have intensified resistance to the use of asbestos despite the technical ban, imposed in the mid-1990s, on mining of chrysotile asbestos. Now, it is primarily imports from Canada and elsewhere that sustains the estimated Rs 4,000-crore industry in India.

The pro-asbestos business lobby is reported to be pressurising policy-makers to lift the ‘technical ban’, which denies renewal of mining leases. This material is universally known to be a health hazard, with a special propensity to cause cancer. However, when the bottomline is profit, health and human rights concerns become peripheral. At a meeting convened by the Ministry of Mines four months ago, mine owners from Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh are said to have tried hard for reversal of the prohibition. Sources reveal that such mining goes on even now in Rajasthan in a limited way. Jharkhand’s mines apparently are exhausted. Though it has a plethora of uses, asbestos is deployed mainly in low-cost housing; vehicles (brake lining and brake shoes); to make water supply pipes; in fire-proofing; and sound-proofing. Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, China and some other countries are the main producers of the material.

Opponents of the proposal ascribe the Rajasthan Government’s turnabout on the issue, revoking the earlier demand to lift the ban on mining, to a conflict of interests, related to white asbestos importers. The use and mining of brown and blue asbestos is completely banned in India. The prevailing ambivalence among policy-makers is indicated by a recommendation of the Indian Bureau of Mines that the ban be lifted as health hazards could be dealt with. British toxicologist John Hoskins reportedly dismisses the risk entailed by asbestos use as “unimportant”, compared to “risks on road, the risks of food poisoning — risks in developing countries, particularly of dirty water and poor sewage facilities”.

This line of reasoning is forcefully rebutted by human rights activists such as Mr Gopal Krishna of Ban Asbestos Network of India and Toxic Watch Alliance. A missive sent on behalf of BANI, dated June 19, to the Quebec Government Office in Mumbai, Consulate General of Canada, protests against the Quebec Government’s move to give a huge subsidy to the asbestos mining industry in Canada, with health consequences for developing countries like India. Significantly, to quote from the letter, “Canada exports the cancer causing fibre to India but prefers not to use it domestically… in 2007, Canada exported almost 95 per cent of the white asbestos it mined, and out of it, 43 per cent was shipped to India”.

Economic liberalisation’s dark side is thus evident, with India and its ilk becoming dumping grounds for hazardous products and even lethal waste from developed countries. Pliant policy-makers and a weak regulatory framework are easily manipulated by business conglomerates and powerful nations. An excerpt from the letter makes this point:

“The chrysotile asbestos (white asbestos) industry is acting as merchants of death even as workers and consumers are routinely being exposed to deadly asbestos fibres. Notably, worker protections and enviro-occupational health infrastructure are weak or non-existent in India… The Indian Parliament and Canadian House of Commons must act to stop the Governments from protecting the companies that knowingly commit corporate crimes…”

BANI recommends the use of safer fibres in the place of asbestos, whose health risks are acknowledged by a resolution of the International Labour Organisation. Adopted by the 95th session of the International Labour Conference in June 2006, it states: “… all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, are classified as known human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a classification restated by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (a joint Programme of the International Labour Organisation, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Environment Programme).”

Sadly, the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Trans-boundary Movement) Rules, 2008 contains a proviso that facilitates movement of “asbestos containing residue”, which, as hazardous waste, “may be transported, treated and disposed of”, as per the rules. Yet, under these rules, import or export of waste asbestos is banned. Available data indicates that India was the third largest market for this fibre in 2008. As demand for asbestos grows, opponents fear the outcome in terms of its impact both on people and nature.

August 27, 2010
Daily Pioneer


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