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Asbestos: Kill the people, protect the industry
If India continues to stick to the position it took on asbestos at the recent UN conference, cases of asbestosis, lung caner and mesothelioma are likely to reach record proportions.
INDIA HAS SPOKEN out strongly in support of the Canadian position and opposed the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos — also called white asbestos — in the trade watch list of hazardous chemicals at the UN conference in Geneva that concluded on October 13. Consequently, white asbestos — the cancer causing fiber — had to be kept off the global list of toxic chemicals. 
 
Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) — an alliance of scientists, doctors, public health researchers, trade unions, activists and civil society groups — has expressed outrage at India’s opposition to listing of white asbestos in the PIC (an acronym for Prior Informed Consent) list.
 
The Indian Government has misinformed the UN bodies by not bringing to their notice what the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare and Parliamentary Affairs, Anbumani Ramadoss, had said. He said in Parliament that “studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.”
 
In a manifestly mischievous and insincere argument in Geneva, the government feigned ignorance about the affidavit it has filed in the Supreme Court quoting a report of the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, on August 31, 2006, which says that asbestos is taking its toll. The report says that almost one in six workers — 16 per cent of the workforce that handles asbestos — could be suffering from an early stage of asbestosis, an irreversible lung condition that could lead to lung cancer.
 
Set up by the Supreme Court in February 2006, the Committee of Technical Experts, headed by Prodipto Ghosh, secretary, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, has submitted its report to the Supreme Court.
 
The report highlights alarming facts related to the exposure to asbestos, which the government had denied till now. Most of these workers had worked for less than 10 years. Normally, it takes more than 10 years for full-blown asbestosis to develop, but a higher level of exposure hastens its onset. When this asbestos is removed, its particles become air-borne and attack the lungs. Despite this, the central government chooses to remain under the grip of white asbestos industry by ignoring the views of scientists, doctors, public health researchers, trade unions and civil society groups.
Oblivious of public health and sane voices within its establishment, the government has remained consistent in its wholehearted support for asbestos companies, unmindful of recent official findings of huge cases of asbestos-related diseases.
 
This is in tune with an Office Memorandum No. 6 (6)/94 of the Ministry of Industry, Government of India. In a stark case of acting on behalf of the white asbestos industry as their paid public relations body, the committee recommended, “The asbestos products industry should shed the perceived image of an industry which is a health risk, and project the image of being an eco-friendly, efficient and technologically competitive enterprise.” 
 
Given the absence of occupational and environmental health facilities in India, the government’s opposition to the recommended inclusion in Annex III (chemicals subject to the PIC procedure) of white asbestos, because it would have an adverse impact on the efforts of developing countries to provide low-cost housing, is an exercise in sophistry. If one were to accept the propaganda of “safe” and “controlled” use of asbestos as truth, the industry along with the government would have the world believe that they will make the poor in India literate first and then they would make them literate about the “safe” and “controlled” use of asbestos. By then India would break all the world records of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, given the inevitable consequence of asbestos epidemic. 
 
The PIC procedure of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention is meant to provide countries with documentation on designated chemicals so that national governments can make informed decisions on whether these materials can be used safely. When the inclusion of white asbestos on the PIC list was proposed for listing as a dangerous substance, it was blocked by India along with other asbestos stakeholders led by Canada.
 
The list is very much required, as it will provide the countries with documentation explaining the hazards posed by the use of toxic chemicals such as white asbestos. Full prior disclosure of all the risks from this killer fiber is an ethical, legal and humanitarian necessity; therefore, the PIC listing of white asbestos should have been approved as a matter of utmost urgency at COP3 in October 2006.
 
BANI and the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India (OEHNI) is disillusioned by the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government’s incestuous relationship with white asbestos industry which supports the alliance both politically and financially. It is public knowledge that the Deputy Leader of Indian National Congress in the Lower House of Parliament owns asbestos factories. Therefore, the Congress-led government protects and defends this white asbestos industry and acts against moves to regulate or ban its use. This corporate and political nexus has neither attracted much coverage from the national and international mass media nor has it attracted hard criticism from the public. 
 
Civil society groups, trade unions, human rights groups and members of BANI have demanded an immediate ban on all uses of asbestos in any manner whatsoever, including a ban on its import. It seeks identification of workers/consumers/victims suffering from asbestosis or other asbestos-related diseases or cancer within a period of one year. So far the Indian government has remained grossly insensitive to these crucial demands. The ban by more than 40 countries on asbestos has failed to break its frozen passivity. It exposes the criminal apathy of the industry and the government towards asbestos victims.
 
By now it is quite obvious that the Indian government synchronizes its lips with whatever the white asbestos industry dictates. It has become hostage to the infinite propaganda of the global white asbestos industry so much so that it does not even pretend to be taking public health into cognizance.


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