Time Bomb for Lungs Bury Asbestos, Not People

The massive protest against an upcoming white asbestos-based plant of Kolkata-based Utkal Asbestos Limited (UAL) Industries Ltd. at Goraul, Vaishali, on 14 June has forced the district administration to order stoppage of construction work till further orders. Meanwhile, in an exercise that gives a sense of déjà vu, the company has filed fake cases against eight villagers charging them with arson in the factory premises.

Even media reports reveal that the villagers of Vaishali’s Chaksultan Rampur Rajdhari near Panapur in Kanhauli Dhanraj Panchayat in Goraul block were sitting peacefully at the Mahadharana (protest site) in the presence of police and media persons. The factory gate was closed when the stage-managed fire and smoke became visible. On 16 June Vaishali District Magistrate asked both villagers and the factory management to come forward for negotiations. The letter of SDO, Mahuwa, Vaisahli, reveals that the district administration has initiated the process. In a significant development all the Left parties and National Alliance for Peoples Movement have come in support of the villagers, and Dr. Barry Castleman’s, the world’s foremost expert on asbestos, has sent a letter to Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, asking him to side with the villagers and not with the management of the asbestos factory to prevent a public health disaster.
Villagers have been protesting against the fake public hearing and faulty environmental clearnce under the banner of Khet Bachao Jeevan Bachao Jansangarsh Committee for the last two years.
This protest assumes significance in the backdrop of a 5 June 2012 release of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) that underlined that Bihar Government has failed to give reports to the NHRC on the status of asbestos-related diseases and sought opinion on why asbestos should not be banned. NHRC had sent a notice on 6 July 2011 to the Chief Secretary, Bihar, as well. Other States and concerned central Ministries of Mealth, Environment, Labour, Commerce, Consumer Affairs and others were also asked to file their reports. Only the States of Mizoram, Nagaland and the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, have submitted the reports. Such a callous approach of the governments is unpardonable.
Asbestosis is an occupational disease of the lungs which is on an increase under similar circumstances warranting concerted efforts of all stake holders to evolve strategies to curb this menace. A concept paper by Union Ministry of Labour revealed this at the two-day 5th India-EU Joint Seminar on ‘Occupational Safety and Health’ on 19 and 20 September 2011.
State governments choose to ignore these grave deliberations. Even Union Environment Ministry’s Vision Statement on Environment and Human Health reads: ‘Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent
possible and use of asbestos may be phased out’ but ironically environmental clearance for new white asbestos-based plants continues to be given.
It is noteworthy that Kerala State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC) has made three recommendations banning use of asbestos roofs in its order dated 31 January 2009.
The recommendations are “(a) The State Government will replace asbestos roofs of all school buildings under its control with country tiles in a phased manner. (b) The Government will take steps to see that the schools run under the private management also replace the asbestos roofs with country tiles by fixing a time frame. (c) The Government should see that in future no new school is allowed to commence its functions with asbestos roofs.’ All State Human Rights Commissions can initiate steps to make their states asbestos free by taking cognisance of the above facts. Notably, after 2 years of struggle of villagers and all the Left and Socialist parties in Opposition, Bihar State Human Rights Commission (BSHRC) announced that the white asbestos plant that was under construction in Chainpur-Bishunpur village, Jakhra Sheikh Panchyat, Marwan block of Muzaffarpur has now been wound up. The File Note 45/11 of BSHRC revealed it. So far BSHRC has not been active like the NHRC and the KSHRC in safeguarding the human rights.
In a related development, the change in the position of Union Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers at the UN meeting on ‘Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade’ on 22 June 2011 revealed that now India supports inclusion of Chrysotile (white) asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) list of hazardous chemicals. Thus, white asbestos is all set to be formally included in the list.
Unmindful of the epidemic of asbestos-related diseases that is causing 10,000 deaths every year in USA, Bihar is becoming the hotspot of hazardous asbestos-based production, exposing the people to cancer causing risks. The construction of lung cancer-causing white asbestos plants in Vaishali, Madhubani, West Champaran and production in Bhojpur districts shows that the State has adopted an ostrich policy in the face of global, national and local movement against such plants which are referred to as Time Bombs for lungs.
Not only in Bihar, villagers are protesting against the proposed hazardous asbestos cement roofing factory at Naagaon-Lebidi villages, Sohella Block, Bargarh district, Odisha as well. The company M/s Viswakarma
Roofings Ltd. intends to establish 150,000 tonnes per annum of asbestos cement sheets manufacturing project. In Sambalpur’s Parmanpur village in Odisha villagers are agitating against the hazardous asbestos-based factory of Visaka Asbestos Industries.
Such hazardous plants are being protested against in other states like Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh as well. Environmental groups in Himachal are against the setting up of lung cancer-causing asbestos-based plant at Trilokpur Road in Kheri village of Nahan Tehsil in Sirmaur district. They are demanding an asbestos-free state. A fact-finding team visited Ramco Asbestos Industries plant in Maksi, Madhya Pradesh, in July 2011 and found that workers were working with Russian asbestos without any protection from the killer fibres of white asbestos. In fact most of the authorities in the Centre, Sates and Union Territories have failed to submit reports about asbestos-related diseases to the NHRC on safeguards they have put in place relating to exposure to asbestos. The Commission on 21 May 2012 had ordered for issuing reminders, returnable in 6 weeks, to the Chief Secretaries of all States/Union Territories and other concerned authorities at the Centre who have failed to submit requisite reports. The Commission had asked them to share with it the information on the action taken by them with regard to the Supreme Court judgement dated 21 January 2011.
The NHRC, while seeking their responses, had particularly drawn their attention to the Supreme Court directions with regard to Para 16 of the Writ Petition, which are as follows: ‘(a) Ministry of Labour in the Union of India and Department of Industries and Labour in all the State Government shall ensure that the directions contained in the judgement of this Court in the case of Consumer Education and Research Centre are strictly adhered to; (b) In terms of the above judgement of this Court as well as reasons stated in this judgement, “we hereby direct the Union of India and the States to review safeguards in relation to primary as well as secondary exposure to asbestos keeping in mind the information supplied by the respective States in furtherance to the earlier judgement as well as fresh resolution passed by the ILO.”’
It has been guesstimated in a complaint to NHRC on 6 July 2011 that about fifty thousand people die every year in the country due to asbestos-related diseases based on comparison with the fatalities in Ontario, Canada. The complainant had sought NHRC’s intervention for a ban on the use of chrysotile asbestos (white asbestos), which is hazardous for the health of people and causes various incurable diseases. The white asbestos is a fibrous material used for building roofs and walls, etc.
Citing contradictory position of the Government on the issue the complainant had alleged that though the mining of asbestos was technically banned by the government, yet it allowed its import and that too from the countries which did not prefer its domestic use. It was also alleged that white asbestos is considered a hazardous chemical substance for environment by a number of countries in the world. However, it is being used in a number of industries in India affecting the workers employed therein. The NHRC had given 6 months time for reports to the concerned authorities. On 5 March 2012, they were given 6 weeks more time when most of them failed to give the requisite reports. This reveals the insensitivity of Union and State Governments towards an unacknowledged public health disaster with which the entire developed world is grappling.
If a decision is taken by both the states and the Central government, it will act as a seminal step in the direction of making the country free of killer fibres of asbestos. In the meanwhile, Ministry of Railways has taken the first step in this regard. It is making all the railway platforms asbestos free. While governmental
decisions are awaited, given the hazardous nature of the killer fibres of asbestos, citizens should boycott all
asbestos-based products.
While on a visit to India for an environmental and occupational health conference last year, Professor Elihu D. Richter, MD, from the Hadassah School of Medicine of Hebrew University, Israel, said: ‘All form of asbestos kill. India should bury asbestos, not people … India should not repeat the mistakes of going back some 70 years which will kill tens of thousands of workers and their families.’ Although asbestos was identified as a carcinogen way back in 1965 and as a consequence 55 countries have already banned asbestos, governments in India appear to be feigning ignorance of these glaring scientific and medical facts.

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