Utkal Asbestos Limited (UAL) has sued the Bihar government over chief minister Nitish Kumar's remarks about asbestos. The chief minister had promised to “puncture construction of hazardous asbestos factories in the fertile state”. While stating this, he had endorsed a statement issued by Awadhesh Narain Singh, chairperson of Bihar Legislative Council, who said, “buying asbestos is akin to buying cancer”.
For over two years, residents of Chaksultan Rampur Rajdhari village in Vaishali district have been protesting setting up of a hazardous white asbestos plant on agricultural land under the banner of Khet Bachao Jeevan Bachao Jan Sangharsh Committee (KBJBJC). Patna-based Asbestos Virodhi Nagrik Manch, besides Left and Socialist parties, have expressed solidarity with the people’s struggle.
Chrysotile asbestos, or white asbestos, will soon be included in the UN list of hazardous substances under the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade at the sixth meeting of Conference of the Parties to be held between April 28 and May 10 this year.
The Chemical Review Committee of the Convention had recommended listing of white asbestos after the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that asbestos is a hazardous substance, harmful to human health and environment, and that cannot be used safely in a controlled manner.
India announced its position on June 22, 2011, the third day of the fifth Conference of Parties of the Rotterdam Convention in Geneva, amidst standing ovation at the plenary meeting. Listing of chrysotile asbestos in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention or PIC list will make it mandatory for exporting countries to share information on the hazards of the mineral with the importing countries. It may be noted that India is the chair for a smaller group to discuss and influence the position of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and other countries opposing the listing.
Canada was one of the key suppliers of chrysotile asbestos, which opposed its inclusion in the PIC list of hazardous substances. The purpose of the PIC procedure is to allow countries to make their own informed decisions on future imports of hazardous substances. The chemicals listed in Annex III of the Convention include pesticides and industrial chemicals that have been banned or are severely restricted for health or environmental reasons by two or more Parties and which the Conference of the Parties has decided to subject to the PIC procedure.
Canada barely uses asbestos in its own country. It has been spending millions to remove asbestos from the Parliament buildings. However, despite knowing the cancer-causing nature of asbestos, Canada continues to ship some 150,000 tonnes of it to countries like India each year.
At the ninth International Asbestos Disease Awareness Conference during March 22-24, this year in Washington DC, Arthur L Frank, chairperson of environmental and occupational health at Drexel University in Philadelphia, expressed concern over India’s current unchecked dependence on chrysotile asbestos, reflecting on multiple expert studies projecting a spike in mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in Asia by 2030. Frank, who is a visiting professor at Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, said: “What we can expect is very predictable—an absolute catastrophe of death and disease and it is all preventable.”
The district administration had ordered UAL to stop construction after a public demonstration by residents of Mahadharna village on June 14, 2012. Construction restarted on December 16, 2012. However, work was stalled again after protesters blocked the Mahua-Samastipur road for nine hours near their village in December-end.
On February 13, KBJBJC activists met Nitish Kumar and informed him about the plant. He promised to take action against the company and expressed anger over Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) granting No Objection Certificates to such a plant. At the chief minister’s behest, BSPCB officials met the residents at his office. They also visited the factory site on March 4 to review the case.
In response to the state government’s anti-asbestos stance, UAL filed a case on March 4, this year in the Patna High Court. The case is scheduled for hearing on April 4, before Justice J N Singh.
But the licence of UAL has still not been cancelled. “The company has managed to retain the licence because it has the support of deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar,” alleges Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch Alliance.
Ajit Kumar Singh, convener of KBJBJC, says UAL has implicated the protesters in several police complaints. “For instance, they set afire one of their machines and lodged a police complaint, alleging it was done by us. I have video records to prove that the machine was burnt by UAL officials,” he says. KBJBJC activists have given a memorandum to the chief minister, seeking withdrawal of three fake cases lodged in Mahua police station.
Singh says there are three more asbestos plants that have been set up in the state, at Giddha and Bihiya villages in Bhojpur district. The plant at Giddha is operating behind a BEd College, while residents are protesting against it. “In Bihiya, Ramco Industries is operating two asbestos plants amid protests from people although it has permission for only one. A memorandum has been submitted to the district administration and the BSPCB in this regard,” Singh says.
Call to ban asbestos
While addressing health experts, scientists, trade union leaders, academicians and civil society leaders at a conference on environmental and occupational health on December 24, last year, Singh, chairperson of the Bihar Legislative Council had said, “Buying asbestos is akin to buying cancer”. The conference adopted a Patna Declaration, urging the state to ban use of asbestos products.
The same day, Justice Rekha Kumari of Patna High Court had said at a public lecture at A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies that companies which wilfully expose human beings to cancer-causing fibers of asbestos, must be made criminally liable because right to health is part of right to life. Over 50 countries have banned use of asbestos.