Chrysotile in India: Truth Held Hostage
The title of this article is taken from an editorial written by Dr. Sanjay Chaturvedi which appeared in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine.1 In that paper, Dr. Chaturvedi revealed how strategies used by global asbestos stakeholders to suppress data, mislead the public and manipulate national governments are being used to good effect in India to create a climate in which the use of chrysotile asbestos is increasing. The asbestos-cement (ac) industry in India is a multibillion dollar industrial sector which is growing by 9% a year: Rising revenue and increasing manufacturing capacity of all major asbestos players make asbestos a 'good investment' in share market according to financial analysts and advisers.
The dire consequences of asbestos use in India were detailed in Annie Zaidi's Frontline expose: Killer Mineral published on-line this month (October 2006).2 Zaidi cites a report issued by the Supreme Court's Committee of Technical Experts on the health of workers at the Alang ship-breaking yard which found that 16% of them suffered from asbestosis. Similar results have been found by other investigations:
in 2004, the Occupational Health and Safety Centre, Mumbai reported that 22% of the workers from the ac factory belonging to Hindustan Composites (Ghatkopar) had asbestosis;
another 2004 research project commissioned by the Labor Ministry and carried out by the Central Labor Institute (Mumbai) of at-risk asbestos workers reported similar findings as did research undertaken by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC).3
Despite all that is known about the hazardous nature of chrysotile, India continues to import it in vast quantities. Journalist Zaidi wryly comments that although India imports raw asbestos, it is unable to export asbestos material as nobody is willing to buy. Not even Canada, which accounts for more than 70 per cent of our imports, will risk buying asbestos-laden roofing, clutch plates, or textiles. The asbestos lobby in India has many friends in the Government who have introduced measures to give asbestos a significant competitive price advantage over safer products. Ravi Agarwal, Director of Toxics Link, explains that:
The import duty on asbestos dropped from 78 per cent in 1992 to 15 per cent in 2004. the government clearly has no plans to phase it out. Incidentally, such duty benefits aren't extended to other products that might serve as substitutes, such as poly-vinyl alcohol.
Researchers have identified hundreds of asbestos victims from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the level of asbestosis amongst power station workers throughout India is also high. Despite an order by the Supreme Court that the Government must check all power plants, no action has been taken by the Labor Ministry. Groups such as Ban Asbestos India and Kalyaneshwari, a Kolkata-based NGO, are calling for a national ban on all asbestos use and imports. The payment of compensation for asbestos-related disease and the maintenance of at-risk registers for exposed workers remain fantasies in a country which, while paying lip-service to ILO conventions and recommendations, continues to promote and endorse the use of the killer fiber.
October 20, 2006
1 Chaturvedi S. Editorial Chrysotile in India: Truth Held Hostage. Indian Journal of Community Medicine. 2006: 31:1-2.
2 Zaidi A. Killer Mineral. Frontline. Volume 23- Issue 20: October 7-20, 2006. http://www.frontline.in/fl2320/stories/20061020002610000.htm
3 In a paper by Raghonath Manwar: Asbestos and its Ill Effect on Human Health, he describes a survey of an ac unit in Faridabad which found that 7% of the workers had asbestosis and 58% showed some signs of lung changes; another survey at a Mumbai ac plant revealed that 28% had advanced asbestosis. Manwar estimates at least one third of workers in asbestos industries are suffering from asbestosis.