Violent Attack on Asbestos Critics
Days after the Indian Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit calling for a national ban on asbestos,1 protestors were attacked at the proposed site for a new asbestos-cement factory in Muzzafarpur, in the east Indian state of Bihar.2 Concern for public health motivated farmers and villagers from Bishnupur-Chainpur, a hamlet of 25,000 people, to object to the industrial development of agricultural land. Allegations that procedural norms have been violated in the planning process and that developers Balmukund and Roofing Ltd. did not disclose information about the potential consequences of operating an asbestos processing unit in this location have been made. The company has been condemned for the aggressive and undemocratic means by which it is attempting to impose a polluting industry on this community. The National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) has said that the corporation's tactics violate people's basic legal and human rights without due regard to the necessary environmental safeguards measures and processes 3
The latest incident took place on Saturday afternoon (January 22, 2011) during a dharna4 held by a large group of villagers. Eyewitness Ram Naresh Prasad Singh reported:
the district police beat up some of the villagers, while lobbing tear has shells to disperse them. When a large crowd of residents gathered to protest [against] this, the police resorted to firing.
Police charged the crowd with lathis, a device used to suppress public protest in South Asia.5 A statement by the NAPM said that at least a dozen people, many of them women and student-activists have suffered severe lathi-charge, pellet and even bullet injuries in yesterday's incident. Six protestors required hospital treatment. Subsequent efforts to contact the Muzaffarpur District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police about this incident have been unsuccessful. This is not surprising as, it is widely believed, district administrators and the police are working closely with company officials.
The latest attack on protestors follows one which took place last December. On that occasion more than 50 armed men broke up a protest and caused severe injuries including gunshot wounds to members of the local community.6 According to a report in The Hindu newspaper after December's company-backed violence:
Instead of apprehending the miscreants, the police swooped down on the homes of two demonstration leaders and put them behind bars on charges of inciting mob protest.
The National Alliance of People's Movements is calling on the public to bring pressure to bear on Anand Kishoe, District Collector of Muzzafarpur, Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, and Sushil Kumar Modi, Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. In the face of the escalating violence, campaigners from Bishnupur-Chainpur are exploring their options. They are undoubtedly aware that whatever course of action they decide on will have implications not only for their village but for others faced with the imposition of polluting industrial facilities such as the asbestos-cement sheeting factories being planned by Ramco Industries Ltd. and Nibhi Industries Pvt. Ltd. for other Bihar towns.
January 23, 2011
1 Kazan-Allen L. Supreme Court's Asbestos Decision a Missed Opportunity. January 22, 2011.
2 Banerjee S. Marwan asbestos saga takes an ugly turn. January 23, 2011.
3 Statement by National Alliance of People's Movements. Action Alert: Condemn 2nd firing for Asbestos company in Muzzafarpur.
4 The Oxford dictionary of English defines a dharna as follows: a mode of compelling payment or compliance by, sitting at the debtor's or offender's door until the demand is complied with. It comes from the Hindi wording meaning placing.
5 The lathi can be up to 8-feet long (2.4m) and can be tipped with metal.
6 Banerjee S. 'Killer dust' threat looms over Marwan despite protests. December 28, 2010.