Asbestos Tsunami Headed for India
A Quebec trade mission bent on increasing chrysotile (white asbestos) sales to India by ten-fold has just completed a five-day initiative in that country.1 It is not enough that India is Canada's best customer for chrysotile, having bought nearly 700,0002 tonnes in the last decade; Quebec's chrysotile exporters want to sell more! The asbestos bonanza the Canadians are looking to unleash would come from a controversial mine in Quebec that is currently looking for public funding.3 Government and commercial asbestos stakeholders who are members of the 50-strong delegation made good use of the opportunities offered by this week's official visit to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore to curry favor with politicians, promote chrysotile sales and defuse opposition to the expansion of Canadian asbestos production.
The mission, led by Quebec's Minister of Economic Development Clement Gignac, has attracted flak from critics at home and abroad.4 On Tuesday (February 1), a demonstration took place outside the Mumbai Municipal Corporation's head office to highlight the existence of an asbestos double standard: Canadian asbestos too hazardous to be used at home is exported to India. In a memorandum addressed to Minister Gignac, the organizers of the protest appealed to the Minister to put human lives ahead of short-term political/financial considerations 5
Many of those taking part in the demonstration were victims of asbestos-related disease or family members of those who have died. A health survey of former workers from one Mumbai asbestos factory found that 30% were suffering from asbestosis or lung cancer.
On the same day as the Mumbai protest, 1,250 miles away people in the State of Bihar were demonstrating about plans to build an asbestos-cement factory in Muzaffarpur. As a result of opposition to this project, construction work was stopped for a time by orders from the local district administration. When contractors returned to work on a boundary wall, local people mounted a sit-in to prevent trucks from entering the site.6 The violent response to the peaceful civil disobedience led to another stop work order. To prevent further inconvenience to the developers an order has been imposed by the district administration under Section 144 of the India Penal Code. The order, which forbids the congregation in a public place of more than 5 people, is being wielded to shut down the protests. The use of this draconian legal instrument, a left-over from the country's colonial past, does not bode well for the human or legal rights of Indian citizens. With the progression of planning applications for asbestos manufacturing facilities in the Bhojpur, West Champaran, Vaishali and Madhubani districts of Bihar State, public discontent and civil unrest are bound to grow. Politicans and administrators might do well to study the events in Egypt before trying to stifle legitimate democratic discourse in India. 7
India's asbestos stakeholders are doing everything they can to reimpose industry control on the national asbestos debate. Before the internet achieved its current dominance, asbestos vested interests deployed their formidable financial resources to buy infomercials in national and local newspapers to promote the safe use or controlled use policy endorsing the continued use of asbestos. Nowadays, the industry lobby is increasingly resorting to online outlets to distribute its propaganda. As the asbestos pushers know full well that anything with their imprint will be disregarded by members of the public, they are sanitizing their releases as articles written by a named author, one with no apparent affiliation to the industry. This strategy is revealed by the initials ACPMA standing for Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association which appear on the top of the UPVERY.com webpage.8 Listed underneath this heading are nine articles, all written by rajeev, or Rajiv Mehta, or Rajiv. When you click on the links you are taken to the articles, all of which deal with asbestos, and none of which mention links to the ACPMA. Should you come to these articles through a variety of other routes, such as various google alerts,9 you would be unaware of any connection between the author and the industry.
Others gimmicks being explored by the asbestos industry to neutralize opposition include a proposal for the Government of Quebec to hire independent labor inspectors to ensure that Canadian asbestos exports are used safely in India.10 According to a spokesman for the company heading the international development consortium for the new mine:
What the government of Quebec wants is to structure a program of inspection which guarantees safe use (of asbestos) and that the program be structured in such a way as to guarantee its impartiality and effectiveness.
This bizarre idea is a public relations device used to distract attention from what it truly at stake: the lives of millions of innocent people in India who will be exposed to ever increasing mountains of Quebec asbestos. In a letter sent on January 18, 2011 to Minister Gignac by the public health directors of all 18 of Quebec's health and social regions, the medical professionals question the feasibility of the 'safe' use of asbestos put forward in Quebec.11 If a developed economy in an industrialized country like Canada cannot protect its people from the harmful effects of chrysotile asbestos, how will this be achieved in a country where 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Yet another piece of industry flim-flam is a rumored QuebecIndia Collaboration Agreement on the safe use of chrysotile asbestos.
Last week, the owners of the Jeffrey Mine bought a full page advertisement, or what they called a Publicreportage, in Le Devoir newspaper, a French language daily published in Montreal. The outrageous assertions made in the text were a mixture of incorrect and misleading information. Amongst the more outrageous statements (in bold below) made in the ad were:
On February 4, the Quebec trade mission was in the Indian capital. Their visit comes almost a year after a visit by Quebec's Premier Jean Charest was derailed by demonstrations, press conferences and media interviews criticizing Quebec's hypocrisy in exporting to India a substance too dangerous to use at home.14 Scores of trade unionists, members of groups affiliated with the Building and Woodworkers International, mounted a demonstration in Delhi on February 4 calling for an end to Canada's deadly exports and a rejection by the Quebec Government of the mine proposal.
Even as the protest continued, civil society representatives engaged in a one hour dialogue about Quebec asbestos exports to India with Quebec Ministry officials, consulate staff and civil servants from the trade delegation.15
In a Memorandum presented to Minister Gignac, the trade unionists and campaigners stated:
In light of the overwhelming evidence that chrysotile asbestos is deadly and cannot be safely used, we call on you to act in an honourable manner. We ask you to stop serving the asbestos industry and put human health and human life ahead of political interests and financial profits. Do not finance the Jeffrey mine. Stop promoting and exporting asbestos in Asia.16
Minister Gignac is on record as saying that he will not approve the government loan guarantee until he is confident that Quebec asbestos will be used safely in India. As was pointed out in the Memorandum:
A study by Quebec government health experts showed that in the few industries in Quebec still using asbestos, there was a 0% failure rate in practicing safe use' requirements Quebec and Canada's medical and public health authorities have informed you that safe use of chrysotile asbestos is not possible and that Quebec's export of asbestos is medically indefensible.
Commenting on the meeting, trade unionist Anup Srivastava reported that the arguments advanced by the Canadians were the same as always. He noted that their latest stratagem, the idea of sending Quebec inspectors to India to ensure compliance with safe use standards, was nonsensical how could anyone monitor the entire life cycle of all asbestos-containing products in India? Despite this well-deserved skepticism, there is no doubt that this idea will be explored to within an inch of its life. Indeed the governments of Quebec and India have agreed to draw up an accord on investment and sustainable development in mining activities. The agreement would include chrysotile 17
Meanwhile back in the Quebec mining town of Asbestos, Jeffrey Mine President Bernard Coulombe remains defiant. Reaffirming his commitment to the asbestos cause he dismisses the industry's critics as self-serving profiteers and ill-informed obsessives who say: It's a carcinogen, it's a carcinogen, it's a carcinogen.18 Coulombe's need to repeat this phrase three times suggests he is trying hard to deny something he knows to be true. If his messianic mission to rehabilitate the moribund mine, restore the fortunes of the town and recapture the past succeeds, it may benefit a few foreign investors but it would also jeopardize the lives of his employees, local people and millions of overseas workers in countries such as India where a tidal wave of chrysotile will cause death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.
February 5, 2011
1 Brunet C. The Quebec government could supervise inspection of factories in India. February 2, 2011.
2 Canada Export Statistics. Commodity, 2524: Asbestos.
4 Que. group slams asbestos exports. January 28, 2011.
5 This document, which was written by Sanjay Singhvi, President of the Krantikari Kamgar Union, and Pralhad Malvadkar, from the Occupational Health and Safety Centre, was submitted to the Canadian Consulate General in Mumbai,
6 Information supplied by Madhumita Dutta. February 2, 2011.
9 Articles on asbestos by this author were highlighted on google alerts at the following links:
10 Brunet C. The Quebec government could supervise inspection of factories in India that are using asbestos fibre produced in Quebec. February 2, 2011.
11 Letter to Minister Gignac. January 18, 2011.
15 Civil society groups represented at this meeting included: Hind Mazdoor Sabha, All India Trade Union Congress, Building and Woodworkers International, Occupational & Environmental Health Network of India, Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, International Metalworkers Federation and Environics Trust.
16 Memorandum for Clement Gignac, Quebec Minister of Economic Development. February 4, 2011.
17 Dougherty K. Quebec, India mining accord to include asbestos. February 4, 2011.
18 Austen I. In a Town Called Asbestos, a Plan to Restart the Industry That Made It Prosperous. February 3, 2011.