Two contradictory things but related things have unfolded in Quebec and Bihar in September. The campaign against the asbestos plant in Bihar’s Vaishali reached a critical moment with the District Magistrate of Vaishali informing the villagers that the construction of Utkal Asbestos company’s factory which was temporarily stopped following villagers’ bitter resistance is now going to be allowed. With the victory of Pauline Marois led newly-elected Parti Québécois (PQ), the Quebec government is all set to stop supporting the asbestos mining in Canada which has been exported to countries such as India.
The Central government should communicate unambiguously to the Canadian authorities that India, having disassociated from Canada in UN’s Rotterdam Convention on the issue of listing chrysotile asbestos ((white asbestos)) as a hazardous substance, is going to take the next logical step of banning it.
In Canada, the previous regime of just defeated Jean Charest’s provincial Quebec government helped revive the asbestos mining industry by providing a $58-million government loan to reopen the Jeffrey Mine despite wide spread national and international condemnation.
World renowned occupational and environmental health experts and leaders of global anti-asbestos movement have written to both the Bihar Government and Quebec government to stop commercial activities in asbestos. It is evident across the world that the asbestos industry is surviving because of the Indian government’s help. The New Quebec government can pave the way for the Indian government and the Bihargovernment to extricate themselves from promoting a lung cancer causing asbestos industry.
Taking note of the proposed asbestos based plant in Vaishali, Lyle Hargrove, Chair, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW), Canada wrote to the Bihar Government saying, “We have inter-disciplinary teams of occupational physicians, nurses and hygienists in clinics across Ontario, Canada. We have had the unfortunate duty to help thousands of Ontario workers, and often their surviving family members, with asbestos disease, including lung cancer and mesothelioma (a terrible cancer of the lung lining which only comes from asbestos exposure). It has now reached the stage where we have around 500 new asbestos cancer cases in Ontario every year. So we have learned a terrible lesson here in Canada and are urgently concerned about the potential for the same to be visited upon you in India.”
He added, “I am writing at this time to urge you to stop the Vaishali project. I can assure you from our Ontario experience that no form of asbestos is safe – all cause cancer. Our strict protections under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against exposure to asbestos do not make any distinction between types of asbestos. And it is the same with our statutory presumption of work-relatedness of mesothelioma under our Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.”
In her letter to Bihar Chief Minister, Fernanda Giannasi, who is known as Erin Bronkovich of Brazil informed him that besides some 66 countries, “5 states of Brazilian Federation have already approved laws that prohibit the uses of asbestos. Other states are debating to adopt the same decision.” She is a very famous labour inspector since 1983 for the Regional Labor and Employment Superintendence Ministry of Labor and Employment, São Paulo, Brazil.
She added, “For almost 30 years, I have inspected industrial plants in my state of São Paulo where 172 companies declared using asbestos, out of which 170 have already changed the technology for asbestos-free enforcing the state law and we have followed all these changes and respective improvements for the worker’s safety and health and of course for the general public health.”
Fernanda Giannasi underlined, “A vast medical literature produced over the course of the 20th century sustains the thesis that there is no safe way to work with asbestos or use products that contain it, and that the best way to eliminate diseases caused by this mineral fiber is to ban it…I must inform you that asbestos is not just a problem for workers who are exposed to its microscopic and lethal fibers. It can indiscriminately affect the families of these workers, people living near mines and industrial facilities where asbestos is produced or handled, and consumers…The so-called controlled use of asbestos defended by the IBC is not realistic neither in developed countries nor in developing and emerging economies like ours in IBSA. It is an abstraction without any representation in the reality of our workplaces. I urge you to use your influence to make IBSA region asbestos free and factor in South Africa’s decision to ban asbestos in your decision making…Therefore, it is reasonable to ask you to halt the construction of the manufacturing unit of asbestos based products in Vaishali and elsewhere Bihar and India to protect Indian workers, villagers and citizens as well of as worldwide population.” The logical step of making India-Brazil and South Africa(IBSA) region asbestos free is indisputable.
Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Parliamentary Party and leaders of Communist and Socialist Parties besides the Bhartiya Janata Party have been informed about the news report ‘Chinese car maker Chery announces Brazil recall of 12,500 vehicles for asbestos’ (Washington Post, August 30, 2012) that reveals recall of cars sold after asbestos was found in engine and exhaust gaskets by Chery International, a Chinese automaker. This follows the ban on entry of China-made cars containing incurable cancer causing asbestos in its structure in Australia.
Australia is one of the 53 countries that have banned the import of asbestos. India is yet to ban it. Almost all the vehicles in India are laden with asbestos based components. There is no building in India which is asbestos free. All the MPs, concerned Parliamentary Committees, several Chief Ministers and all the Chief Secretaries of the States and administrators of Union Territories have been sounded about it and reminded about National Human Rights Commission’s notice to the central and State governments.
Taking cognisance of threats to life and public health; more than 50 countries have banned production, use, manufacture and trade of the hazardous mineral fiber, ASBESTOS. These countries are: Algeria, Czech Republic, Iceland, Malta, Seychelles, Argentina, Denmark, Ireland, Mozambique, Slovakia, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Netherlands, Slovenia, Austria, Estonia, Italy, New Caledonia, South Africa, Bahrain, Finland, Japan, Norway, Spain, Belgium, France, Jordan, Oman, Sweden, Brunei, Gabon, South Korea, Poland, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Germany, Kuwait, Portugal, Turkey, Chile, Greece, Latvia, Qatar, United Kingdom, Croatia, Honduras, Lithuania, Romania, Uruguay, Cyprus, Hungary, Luxembourg and Saudi Arabia. All the 27 countries of European Union have banned it.
On August 15 August, 2012 news came from Australia that an Australian importer has recalled 23,000 cars made by China’s Great Wall Motor Co Ltd and Chery Automobile Co after deadly asbestos fibres were found in engines and exhaust gaskets. The importer, Ateco Automotive has been asked by Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to replace affected components in the cars. Dealers have also been asked to stop selling the asbestos laden cars. The news report ‘23,000 China-made cars recalled in Oz for asbestos parts’ is attached.
Besides mining of asbestos of all kinds, trade in asbestos waste (dust & fibers) is banned in India. In June 1993, the Central government stopped the renewal of existing mining leases of asbestos. The mining activity was banned by Union Ministry of Mines. It is strange that while mining of asbestos is banned in our country due to adverse health impact, the same is being imported from Russia, Canada and other countries. It may be noted that Canada has a no home use policy and it is investing to decontaminate its built environment of asbestos.
According to a Fact sheet No.343 of the World Health Organisation (WHO) titled ‘Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases’ dated July 2010, “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, and may cause mesothelioma and cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary. Asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases, such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), pleural plaques, thickening and effusions.” The harmful effects of asbestos of all kinds have been established conclusively.
Indian Mines Ministry has consistently informed the Parliament that “In view of the hazardous effect of asbestos mining on health, the Government has decided not to grant any new lease for mining of asbestos and minerals found along with asbestos. It does not renew the existing mining leases of asbestos. In view of the deleterious effect of asbestos mining on the health of the workers, the government had ordered the State governments in 1986 not to grant any new mining lease for asbestos (including chrysotile variety) in the country.
It is noteworthy that in 1995, the Supreme Court of India held that “The development of the carcinogenic risk due to asbestos or any other carcinogenic agent does not require continuous exposure. The cancer risk does not cease when the exposure to the carcinogenic agent ceases, but rather the individual carries the increased risk for the remaining years of life. The exposure to asbestos and the resultant long tragic chain of adverse medical, legal and societal consequences, reminds the legal and social responsibility of the employer or producer not to endanger the workmen or the community or the society. He or it is not absolved of the inherent responsibility to the exposed workmen or the society at large. They have the responsibility-legal, moral and social to provide protective measures to the workmen and to the public or all those who are exposed to the harmful consequences of their products.”
Both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and WHO recognise that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos, replace asbestos with safer substitutes, take measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal and improve early diagnosis, treatment, social and medical rehabilitation of asbestos-related diseases and to establish registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos. ILO also passed a resolution seeking elimination of future usage of asbestos of all forms in June 2006. How can such glaring scientific and medical facts be ignored?
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued notices to all the State Governments, Union Territories and concerned ministries of the Central Government to file the status of asbestos disease victims and asked them why it should not be banned. The Commission has underlined that keeping inmates under asbestos roof is harmful and alternative roofs should be used. But so far only the States of Mizoram, Nagaland and the National Institute of Occupational Health Ahmedabad have submitted the reports. NHRC’s intervention has been sought for a ban on the use of chrysotile asbestos, which is hazardous for the health of people and causes various incurable diseases. While Government has rightly banned mining of asbestos, yet it allowed its import and that too from the countries like Canada which did not prefer its domestic use.
Unmindful of such developments in the world and within the country, it appears that the Ministry of Commerce is unable to resist asbestos industry’s influence in public interest and desist from signing the “Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement” (CEPA) with Canada that allows the export of cancer causing Canadian asbestos to India. The New Democratic Party (NDP) of Canada, the official Opposition party has revealed the efforts of Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper government to eliminate trade tariffs on exports of lethal Canadian asbestos to India. “It is a disgrace that the Harper government has opposed the global effort to ban this substance,” NDP said in a release dated December 5, 2011.
Following protests in Odisha’s Visaka asbestos plant in Parmanpur village of Sambalpur, the plant has been stopped. Prior to it, a pitched villagers battle against Bihar’s Muzaffarpur plant in Chainpur-Bishunpur village ensured that it is wound up. Agitation against similar plants is underway in Odisha’s Bargarh in Naagaon-Lebidi villages of Sohella Block and Bihar’s Chaksultan Rampur Rajdhari near Panapur in Kanhauli Dhanraj Panchayat of Goraul block in Vaishali.
In a letter to Vaishali District Magistrate, Jitendra Srivastava, Dr. Barry Castleman, globally recognized foremost authority on medical and legal aspects of asbestos, who has worked with WHO, World Bank and Pan American Health Organisation, wrote, “Strong local opposition to the construction of the asbestos plant in Vaishali is supported by the official statements of the World Health Orgainsation, the International Labour Organisation, and the World Bank calling for an end to asbestos products use…Even the World Trade Organisation has supported national asbestos bans and rejected arguments for ‘controlled use of asbestos’ as unrealistic.” In his letter, Dr Castleman mentions, ‘At a hearing in Brasilia on August 31, 2012, the public prosecutor excoriated the asbestos industry as purely profit-oriented, saying that vast liabilities had been created and left for society to pay; he closed by saying the export of asbestos to poor Asian countries was “environmental racism”.’ Vaishali District Magistrate has been sent letters from Canada, Brazil and citizen movement groups like Indian Social Action Forum and National Alliance for Peoples Movements.
In his ‘Testimony for the Brazilian Supreme Court’, Prof. Benedetto Terracini (retd), Cancer Epidemiology, University of Torino Italy observed that there is only propaganda in defense of the immoral continuing production, trade and use of asbestos and strongly criticized asbestos industry’s junk science.
It high time India stopped procuring raw asbestos fibers from Russia’s Ural Asbestos Mining & Ore Dressing Company, the world’s largest manufacturer. It should rescind its asbestos trade related agreements with Canada, Kazakhstan and Brazil. In view of the above facts, immediate steps are required to ban use and manufacture of asbestos and stop construction of asbestos based factories in all the states. Notably, UN headquarters has been decontaminated of asbestos besides Canadian House of Commons. It is about time Indian buildings like its legislatures, courts, schools, hospitals etc also became asbestos free.
Victorious Quebec leader Pauline Marois has confirmed the commitment by promising to cancel the loan and instead invest the money in economic diversification for the asbestos-producing region. The Bihar government and the Central government cannot shy away anymore from taking firm decisions and ensuring that they are implemented.