By Jagdish Patel*
All forms of Asbestos, including white alias Chrysotile, are highly hazardous. WHO position on asbestos is: All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibers in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials.
In 2004, asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis from occupational exposures resulted in 107,000 deaths and 1,523,000 Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). In addition, several thousands of deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposures to asbestos.
A Working Group under the chairmanship of PC Chaturvedi, Secretary, Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government of India, was constituted by the Planning Commission to prepare the 12th Five Year Plan on Occupational Safety and Health at the workplace. Report was submitted in August, 2011 to the Government. On the issue of asbestos, the report noted asunder:
“It is also high time that the government take initiative in formulating a national plan for prevention and control of silicosis and asbestosis in India so that the objective of the WHO to eliminate silicosis by 2030 is achieved.
“There is an increasing pressure from all the concerned stakeholders for urgent action for protecting the workers and the general population against primary and secondary exposure to Chrysotile form of Asbestos fibers. Greater concerns on the central government are whether or not to ban the mining and use of chrysotile asbestos in India. Besides this a similar concern is felt through International community bringing pres sure on the government for immediate action on the control measures and its elimination.”
India continues to refuse scientific evidence: This was in 2011. Pressure to protect workers and general population has not diluted. Still, the recommendation was obviously over looked by the then Government and present Government now. At recently concluded Conference of Parties of Rotterdam Convention to which India is a party, India continued to object inclusion of Chrysotile asbestos in the list in Annex.III of the convention. This it has done consistently since 2007 (except once) when it came for discussion. We wonder if this is same UPA Government ruling us!
When we heard of slogan of Achchhe Din, and Congress Mukta Bharat, we thought, gone are the days when Chrysotile enjoyed Government support. That did not happen. Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, on 4-07-16 wrote to National Human Rights Commission that “in August, 2014 a meeting was held under the Chairmanship of Minister (Chemicals and Fertilizer) and it was decided in the meeting that since NIOH study on asbestos does not indicate any significant health or environment hazards resulting from the use of Chrysotile asbestos under proper conditions, coupled with the fact that asbestos products are quite cost effective for use by the masses, India may not support the inclusion of Chrysotile in Annex III at the COP meeting in 2015.”
So, they were not much concerned about the impact of asbestos as much that of its cost effectiveness! They did not consider the economic burden of diseases due to asbestos. They did not look at the critique of the study carried out by NIOH by international experts on asbestos. If asbestos is significant hazard for Britain, Australia, Japan, European countries and even Nepal and Sri Lanka why it is not hazardous for Indian masses? Where was the Ministry of Health and family welfare? Where was the Ministry of Labor? Where was the Ministry of Environment and Forest? Where was Ministry of Commerce & Industry? Were they party to this decision?
National Asbestos Profile: Occupational and Environment Health Network India (OEHNI) recently launched National Asbestos profile. According to this profile, India does not mine asbestos. It depends on import from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil etc. Canada was biggest exporter of asbestos to India but Canada, too banned that export. India is one of world’s largest importers of asbestos. In 2011-12 it imported over 378,122 tons, 396,493 tons in 2014-15 and by 2017 it is expected to rise by 605,000 tons with 9% growth.
Asbestos and asbestos containing products are produced in over 150 different factories in India. Over three quarters (77%) of the units are located in the western industrialized states of Gujarat and Maharashtra alone.
Asbestos related diseases on rise: At the same time asbestos related diseases, too are on rise. In Ahmadabad during 2009-2012, 21 cases of mesothelioma were reported at Gujarat Cancer Research Institute, Ahmadabad while in 2013, only during one year they diagnosed 23 cases of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is one of the rare cancers. Since 2010, Turner & Newall Trust has paid compensation to 1045 workers who worked in their subsidiaries in India.
Rajendra Pevekar from Mumbai never worked in any asbestos factory but his father worked. His father brought home some asbestos fibers on his work clothes unknowingly and exposed the family members. Exposed In his childhood Rajendra is suffering from asbestosis now. His mother too is suffering from asbestosis. Numbers of his father’s colleagues and their families have been victims of asbestos.
Rajendra represented asbestos victims in India in COP8 of Rotterdam Convention held at Geneva from 24 April to 5 May, to present their woes and appeal one and all to include chrysotile asbestos in PIC list to restrict trade of one of the most deadly material.
Our neighbors are more progressive: The hazards of Asbestos are well known. 55 countries have banned its use, trade , import , mining, manufacturing and other economic activities related asbestos. Land locked tiny country Nepal has already banned it while Sri Lanka has declared to ban import of asbestos roof sheets from 2018. They have planned to cease use of all asbestos products by 2024. Both are an inspiration for India.
Restrictions would not have any adverse impact: We strongly believe that restrictions on asbestos trade would not have any adverse impact on the trade. If included in PIC, importers will have better choice. They may then have opportunity to use safer alternate raw materials for their products. World will move towards healthier, safer and just world.
Position of the India n Government at Rotterdam Convention: For the last ten years’ chrysotile asbestos has been recommended for listing in the Rotterdam Convention which adds restrictions to its trade. It has been blocked by a few countries who gain directly from the export of asbestos. Though there is credible and adequate scientific and medical evidence about the deadly nature of asbestos , the Government of India is refusing to learn any lessons.
At the Rotterdam Convention meetings, India has not favored to include chrysotile asbestos in Prior Informed consent (PIC) list. At recent COP meeting, issue of inclusion of chrysotile came up on May 3. Speech by the India’s official delegate Biswanath Sinha in the plenary was probably the longest one. He shocked the audience when he said that chrysotile does not meet the criterion set up by Chemical Review Committee (CRC) of the Convention!
Chrysotile was cleared by the CRC for inclusion in list of PIC way back in 2007 and here is Indian official delegate complaining now that it does not meet with the criterion. Countries like Russian Federation, Zimbabwe or Brazil producing and exporting chrysotile even did not dare to level such serious charges as leveled by the Indian delegate. He went on to add that EU and Australia banned chrysotile based on old studies! He added that “some people have been brought from India to protest”.
As soon as he finished, RC COP8 President Perrez recalled that RC COP3 had agreed that all the criteria for listing was met, and that the question remaining was whether to list. Canada, Ecuador, Nepal, Republic of the Congo, Colombia, the EU, Uruguay, Malaysia, Nigeria, Norway, Senegal, Serbia, Peru, Australia and Iraq supported listing. Many countries cited national legislation to control or ban chrysotile asbestos and chrysotile asbestos containing products, and several emphasized there is no safe threshold for exposure.
Underscoring that the RC does not ban chemicals, the EU expressed concern that opponents to listing “misunderstand” the Convention. Tonga, speaking on behalf of the Cook Islands, Marshall Islands and Kiribati, supported listing, citing growing threats posed by chrysotile asbestos due to low awareness of risks and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change. WHO said evidence that chrysotile asbestos is carcinogenic is “conclusive and overwhelming.”
Rotterdam Chrysotile Alliance (ROCA) highlighted the experience of a worker diagnosed with asbestosis due to workplace exposure. Industrial highlighted workers’ rights to safe workplaces. T he Russian Federation, Zimbabwe, India, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus called for more scientific data and review and, with Kazakhstan, Syria and International Alliance for Trade Union Organizations “Chrysotile,” opposed listing.
Indian bureaucrat made fun of asbestos victim: On May 2, Biswanath Sinha suddenly walked up to Rajendra Pevekar, asbestos victims from Mumbai and without introducing himself, intimidated him asking in Hindi, “who brought you here? Why have you come here? It seems you have come here to enjoy beauty of Switzerland. Ok, enjoy and have fun. Rajendra was shocked and inquired who he was. He then introduced himself as head of Indian delegation but did not reveal his name.
Some other delegates from India knew him and helped us know him after he left us. Next say he again walked up to us and repeated his statements when we strongly objected and offered to show him the medical evidence. Asbestos victim is passing through a tiring time and here is top bureaucrat making fun of him! When objected, he defended himself to say that his views may be different.
We learnt that even during COP7 he had intimidated asbestos victim from Mumbai Mr. Sawant who had attended COP7. How insensitive are the Indian bureaucrats! The officers who travel at public expenses have no right to ask Indian citizens such questions and intimidate them.
Safe alternatives are available: When safe alternatives are available why Government should continue asbestos exposure to the workers and the community? 55 countries who have banned its use, don’t find any difficulties, why would we? Nepal and Sri Lanka, two small countries in our neighborhood have cared for their workers and citizens why our Government do not seem taking this care? Government of India is even not favoring any restrictions on the trade of this deadly material. How long our Government will continue work under industry pressure and do not take independent policy decision?
*People’s Training and Research Centre, Vadodara. Source: PUCL Bulletin