first up, another tribute is due to all the people that campaigned and supported the Right To
Information Act, 2005. But for this vital legislation, we would have been so much the poorer for not learning what a national
disgrace India's union government's ministry of chemicals and fertilizers is. Kudos are also due to occupational safety
researchers--it is our collective fortune that there are too many to name here--who have battled India's bureacracy
relentlessly to ferret out information on how the ministry's officials work as the menials of the asbestos industry. The
information obtained through an rti application shows the ministry officials stripped of all
moral clothing, willingly surrendering all agency to an industry that profits from the death and disease of thousands of poor
people (see p 20).
Science has long established--beyond all reasonable doubt--that asbestos is carcinogenic. It kills more people than any other industrial toxin; 40 countries have banned it. Occupational health researchers have been trying for three years to get the mineral listed in the pic (prior informed consent) list of the Rotterdam Convention. This would regulate the international business of this toxin, which is present in numerous products in our daily lives; from asbestos cement sheets to automobile brake linings. The pic listing would create something of an international 'right to information' on trade of asbestos, with exporting countries bound to disclose information to importers. The asbestos lobby does not allow cheaper and safer alternatives to be established in the market. Not only are they anti-worker, they are also opposed to fair competition.
India, along with Canada and Russia, has played a critical role to thwart a pic listing for asbestos. Canada and Russia are both producers of the mineral, so they are protecting their industry. India is only an importer. What prevents it from adopting an alternative to a mineral that kills so many? The asbestos industry does.
While there are alternatives to asbestos, its industry doesn't see options. It has too much money locked up in white asbestos, or chrysotile. It has no plan--intention even--to switch. So, in 2006, it got the Indian government to play a dirty game in international negotiations. Subsequently, the government felt a pressing need for scientific evidence to back its diabolical position. A study was commissioned to a government agency with a reputation, the National Institute of Occupational Health. The ministry's review committee gave it specific instructions on the 'scientific output' required of the study. Now, the committee has called the services of a lobbyist known to defend the interests of industries that profit from hazardous chemicals.
There are very few stories with such obvious villains. And such heroes as our health researchers.
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