Ban Asbestos Mobilization in India
Opposition to India's fatal reliance on asbestos continues to grow. Grass-roots bodies, public health campaigners and trade unionists are pursuing strategies to highlight the human and environmental consequences of Indian asbestos consumption. In 2008, the use of 348,538 tonnes of asbestos made India the world's 3rd largest asbestos market; since 2004, consumption has risen by 83%. Cumulative asbestos usage in India has been estimated at 7,343,612 tonnes.1 To put this figure into context, the UK's consumption of 6 million tonnes has produced the country's worst epidemic of occupational disease and death.
In Ahmedabad, Gujarat, grass-roots activist Manwar Raghunath has been using the Right to Information Act (RTI) to force the government to disclose vital information about corporate health records for 1,031 former workers from a local asbestos-cement factory. Following an application made in June 2009, Manwar discovered that none of these workers appeared on state labour department records. This administrative oversight compromised their right to health benefits and insurance from the Employees State Insurance Corporation, the Gujarat Industrial Safety and Health Directorate and other state and national agencies.
Another of his RTI applications has, for the first time, elicited information from the Industrial Health and Safety Department (IHSD) that eight companies2 in the State of Gujarat are involved in the production of asbestos-containing goods. Information from government sources about the size of the at-risk workforce is confusing; while the Employees State Insurance Corporation says that 1,384 workers are employed by these companies, the IHSD says there are 58. Refusing to provide information about the occupational health and safety programs at these asbestos companies, the IHSD made a devastating admission when it reported it had: no Chest X-Ray, no Pulmonary Lung Function test, Sputum test, blood test or urine test facilities available for detection of asbestosis.3
Good use of the RTI has also been made by the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) a network formed in 2006 of victims' groups, trade unions, civil society associations and labour groups. An OEHNI RTI application to the Central Work Department for details of asbestos use during construction for the XIX Commonwealth Games, to be held in Delhi on October 3-14, 2010, provided an astonishing illustration of the Indian Government's flexible asbestos policy. At the same time as India works with industry stakeholders to prevent multilateral action on asbestos, the Government is implementing a de facto ban prohibiting its use in the construction for the upcoming games. Commenting on the Government's hypocrisy, the OEHNI noted:
If asbestos use is safe (as claimed by the industry and some state governments and government agencies), why is it not being used during construction (for the Games)? It's time Government defines a clear policy on non-use of Asbestos and place a ban on all forms of Asbestos.4
On April 25, 2010, a letter (see OEHNI letter) was sent by the OEHNI to the Premier of Quebec, whose visit to India earlier this year led to demonstrations over Canada's pro-asbestos policy.5 Accusing Premier Jean Charest of a deep apathy, bordering racism, the OEHNI stated:
we are aware that you are no longer using asbestos (in Quebec) We are glad you are not exposing your own citizens to asbestos harm. But do we not count? Do you think we are second-class human beings?
The criticisms expressed in this letter have been aired in both the English and French-speaking Canadian media including broadcasts on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio-Canada:
Earlier this week, a member of an Indian health group accused Quebec Premier Jean Charest of borderline racism, because of his stance on exports to India. In a letter written to Charest, Mohit Gupta of the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India accused the premier of dismissing Indians as second-class citizens. Quebec rarely uses asbestos in construction projects at home but exports the mineral to developing countries, said Gupta. 6
On April 29 Radio-Canada highlighted another of Mr. Gupta's accusations against Charest: You seem, Gupta wrote to have sold your mind, your heart and your soul to the asbestos industry. We don't know why you are applying such a shocking double standard.7
Coinciding with the dissemination of the OEHNI letter was the occurrence of International Workers' Memorial Day (April 28), a day internationally observed by trade unions, victims' groups, campaigners and national governments. The focus of activities which took place in India this year was on the need for government action on asbestos. A joint letter sent by the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) and the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF)8 to the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, recommended a series of measures including:
In New Delhi, hundreds of trade unionists took part in a mass hunger strike organized by construction workers.
Throughout the day, numerous speakers and protestors called for India to ban the use of asbestos. Signs in evidence on the day carried slogans such as: Don't use asbestos, Asbestos is a big threat to human life, and Make environment free of asbestos.
In Tamil Nadu, a memorandum was submitted to the Chief Minister and the Labour Minister which called on the State to ban asbestos and undertake research on the hazardous consequences of occupational asbestos exposures.
The days are long gone when powerful industry forces, like the Indian and Canadian asbestos lobbies, can suppress public outrage over the dumping of carcinogenic substances on populations in developing countries. In May 2010, a series of events will take place in Canada which will provide the opportunity for civil society to express its opinion on whether Canada's pro-asbestos policy is defensible. There is no doubt that developments in India will be discussed at these meetings.
May 3, 2010
1 The data for these figures come from the United States Geological Survey; also see table C, page 66 India's Asbestos Time Bomb.
2 The companies mentioned included: Sanand Captain Packaging Industries, Gujarat Composites, Gujarat Pressure Pipes Private Limited, Ambika Pipes Limited, Hindustan Asbestos Pipes, Barnco Product India Limited, Everest Industries Limited and Champion Jointing Private Limited.
3 Shukla S. State ill equipped to handle asbestosis: RTI report. March 27, 2010.
4 Use of Asbestos during construction for Commonwealth Games. OEHNI Times. Issue 1, April-June 2010.
5 India Rejects Asbestos Premier. February 13, 2010.
6 CBC News. Quebec town seeks to expand asbestos mining. April 29, 2010.
See also: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/canada/breakingnews/indian-official-blasts-quebec-premiers-view-on-asbestos-as-borderline-racist-92350319.html
7 Des travailleurs indiens en colere. [Indian workers angry] April 29, 1020.
8 Between them, the BWI and IMF represent more than 37 million workers in over 100 countries.