From April 28th to May 5th, the Conference of Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions met in Geneva to discuss the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance. These conventions – Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm – are treaties signed by various countries to regulate or eliminate the trade of hazardous substances and pollutants. India is the largest importer of asbestos in the world and opposed the motion to include chrsyotile, the largest type of asbestos traded by volume. On April 28th, Peoples’ Training and Resource Centre (PRTC) released a report for the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) titled ‘India: National Asbestos Profile’.The release was timed to mark both International Worker’s Memorial Day and the beginning of the Geneva talks.
India was one of only six countries to oppose the listing. The others were Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Syria. Most of these countries are exporters of asbestos and have argued at some point, against all prevailing medical knowledge, that asbestos isn’t harmful to the human body.
The WHO has found all types of asbestos to be carcinogenic. More than 50 countries, including the entire European Union, have banned it outright. According to Jagdish Patel of OEHNI, “Asbestos fibres, when inhaled, … start to damage the lung cells and result in asbestosis, which is chronic inflammatory and [leads to] scarring of the tissue of the lungs resulting in shortness of breath, a cough, loss of appetite and weight, chest tightness and pain and clubbed fingers. The risk of lung cancer among people exposed to asbestos is seven times higher compared with the general population. Moreover, the symptoms of asbestos exposure take between 10 and 40 years to manifest.” About 100,000 people die from exposure across the world every year, according to the WHO and ILO.
The Report of the Working Group on Occupational Safety and Health for the Twelfth Five Year Plan cited the lack of data as grounds for opposing the move to include chrysotile. While the lack of data is real, it is still no excuse for not systematically collecting some. One study from the Central Labour Institute found that up to 7.25% of workers in India might suffer from asbestosis. Smaller scale studies discussed in the National Asbestos Profile show much higher findings – even 46 to 70% in certain industries. Spouses of workers were also found to be affected.Asbestos fibre clinging to the clothes of workers can affect their families at home. Non-workers living around factories or dumping sites are also at risk. While the ESI Act covers asbestosis and related lung cancers, it only applies to covered workers. It has no provision to compensate environmental asbestos victims or those who have had secondary exposure. In terms of the compensation, the situation seems dire. The National Asbestos Profile citing information obtained under RTI states that, “As of2008, only 30 cases of asbestosis had been compensated under Employee’s Compensation and ESI Acts.”
India has various rules and regulations regarding the use of asbestos. For example, the Indian Factories Act 1948 lists the asbestos industry as a hazardous industry under Schedule 1 of the Act. “Yet,” according to the National Asbestos Profile, “despite these multiple legal frameworks, they are inadequate as many of them do not stipulate exposure standards or where such standards are specified, they are often outof date or irrelevant to current working conditions.”
HT reported recently that, “India’s import of Chrysotile asbestos continues to grow significantly. It was 3,96,493 tonnes in 2014-15 compared to 2,85,870 in 2013-14. So does domestic demand, which is expected to touch 605,000 tonnes by 2016-17, according to the Bureau of Mines.” It accounts for 57% of all global imports. Part of the reason for this increase in imports is that domestic production or mining has fallen drastically while demand is increasing. Production is now limited to three mines in Kadappa district in Andhra Pradesh.In 2014, Associated Press reported that it was “a $2 billion industry with double-digit annual growth, at least 100 manufacturing plants and some 300,000 jobs.” The vast majority of factories handling asbestos are in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
According to the National Asbestos Profile, “Over 90% of asbestos products in India are used for manufacturing asbestos (AC)cement roof sheets for low-cost housing in rural and urban areas, schools, and industrial structures…It is estimated that in India, one-fifth of buildings (both public and privately-owned) are constructed with asbestos containing materials.” In 2009, the Indian Railways announced that it would stop using asbestos and would gradually start replacing the material from 7000 stations across the country.
While it’s clear that no action will be taken against asbestos in the short term, there is still hope for change in the longer term. In August 2016, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Anil Madhav Dave stated that use of asbestos should end. But whether official policy will reflect this is unclear as during the course of Narendra Modi’s reign as Chief Minister of Gujarat, the asbestos industry grew by leaps and bounds. While there are many instances of worker awareness leading to action against asbestos manufacturers, the vast majority are clearly unaware or uninterested in the health risks. Both top-down and bottom-up change will take concerted push by labour, environmental and public health groups across the country.