NGT asks environment ministry to list asbestos mines; orders health survey of mine workers

Despite a ban on mining of the carcinogenic building and fire-resistant material for the past two decades, NGT’s latest order shows that states and ministry of mines bypassed MoEF&CC to allow its extraction

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Tuesday 25 November 2014

Photographs: Ananda Banerjee

India stopped issuing fresh licences for asbestos mining way back in 1986 in order to phase out the carcinogenic material from the country. However, if one were to go by a recent order of the National Green Tribunal, mining still continues and the same is reflected in the latest mineral production data of Ministry of Mines.

On November 22, the principal bench headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar asked six states—Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Telangana, Jharkhand and Karnataka—whether asbestos mining is being carried out in their jurisdiction. Kumar asked the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to collect data from the respective mining departments and state pollution control boards regarding all the mines operating in these states, whether mines which were operational have ceased to operate and the measures taken to reclaim closed mines. The tribunal also asked for health survey along with the analysis of ambient air and water quality around these mining areas. Further, the bench has also asked the states to list the number of industries processing asbestos in these states.

During the course of the hearing, MoEFCC submitted that it has never given consent to any mining activity for asbestos in the country nor has it issued any environmental clearance. However, despite the ban on the mining of asbestos for more than two and a half decades, the counsel for Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board submitted that the board had granted consents up to 2007, while Odisha Pollution Control Board had granted consent up to 2004. Earlier in August, the bench issued arrest warrants against Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha officials for not appearing before it.

On Friday, the bench said that it is undisputable that asbestos mining activity is considered hazardous and causes serious environmental and health hazards, including diseases such as cancer. “We are constrained to observe that concerned ministry and appropriate authorities of the state are expected to exercise their power so as to prevent and control degradation of environment and harm to public health. If a decision has been taken to ban asbestos mining, the authority should have ensured complete prohibition,” the tribunal stated. According to World Health Organization statistics, about 170,000 lakh people die every year due to the exposure to the carcinogenic fibres of asbestos while working in the mining and processing factories.

Production increased despite ban

However, last year, India opposed the listing of chrysotile asbestos under Annexure III of the Rotterdam Convention at the sixth meeting of Conference of Parties (COP6) on May 8 in Geneva. Substances listed under Annex III of the Convention—a global treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to import of hazardous chemicals—require exporting countries to advise importing countries about the toxicity of the substances so that importers can give their prior informed consent (PIC) for trade.

According to the latest Indian Minerals Year book published by Indian Bureau of Mines under Ministry of Mining in October 2012, the production of asbestos stood at 258 tonnes in 2010-11 and increased by about 6 per cent as compared to previous year. According to Indian Minerals Yearbook, the entire production of asbestos comes from five mines owned by the private sector with three mines in Andhra Pradesh and two asbestos mines in Rajasthan reported production of associated minerals only. However, the Ministry of Mines does not state anywhere that India has been trying to phase out asbestos mining.

On the other hand, according to the petition filed before NGT by Environics Trust, an environmental conservation non-profit based in Delhi, there are about 31 operational mines in Bhilwada district of Rajasthan, apart from other mines. Rajasthan government maintains that there are no asbestos mines, but Environics Trust says in garb of mining associated minerals, asbestos is mined illegally. The non-profit has submitted most of the asbestos milling factories in Rajasthan used asbestos rock since only asbestos fibres are imported, which explains that despite the ban raw materials are available in the state.

The next date for hearing is December 23.

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