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NEW DELHI, Feb 10 2011 (IPS) - Activists hope that a popular agitation against the setting up of a factory to manufacture asbestos products in the eastern Bihar state will result in a nationwide ban on the large-scale import into this country of the deadly mineral fibre.
“This factory has received the environmental clearance from the government of India. But we (the state government) have not permitted its establishment we have not given any permission. As of now asbestos is not prohibited. There should be a uniform policy and asbestos factories stopped all over the country,” Kumar said at a press conference in the national capital Feb. 2.
While construction at the Balmukund Cement and Roofings Ltd (BCRL) factory has now been suspended, Kumar has not moved to ban asbestos factories in his state.
The Khet Bachao, Jeevan Bachao Jansangarsh (Save Land Save Lives) Committee, which is leading the agitation in Muzzafarpur, wants both the centre and the state to unequivocally cancel all approvals given to the BCRL.
While the central government India has banned the mining of asbestos, it allows trade, manufacture and use of the mineral – despite resolutions by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation calling for elimination of future use of asbestos.
Inhaling even small amounts of asbestos fibre or dust can result in a painful, eventually fatal condition called mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Most patients, who are impoverished labourers, have little recourse to medical care. Occupational health is grossly neglected in this country.
“Nitish Kumar’s philosophical appeal to begin a debate on production and use of asbestos in India smacks of insincerity because he should be announcing reforms in his industrial policy,” the anti-asbestos committee’s convenor, Ram Chandra Rai, told IPS over phone. “Our agitation will continue.”
“Obviously Nitish Kumar is under pressure from industrial lobbies. There is no need for further debate on the dangers to human health from asbestos,’’ said Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), which has been supporting the agitation in Muzzaffarpur.
India’s Supreme Court is currently hearing a public interest litigation asking for a complete ban on asbestos, but has decided to leave it to Parliament to bring in suitable legislation through the White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill that is pending since 2009.
At a hearing on Jan. 21 the apex court observed that the bill “specifically notes that the white asbestos is highly carcinogenic and it has been so reported by the WHO. In India, it is imported without any restriction while its domestic use is not preferred by the exporting countries.”
The court noted that in 2007 Canada exported 95 percent of the white (chrysotile) asbestos it mined, of which 43 percent was shipped to India. “In view of these facts, there is an urgent need for a total ban on the import and use of white asbestos and promote the use of alternative materials,” the court observed.
Canada strictly regulates the use of asbestos under its Hazardous Products Act and the Environmental Protection Act, but produced 180,000 tonnes of the mineral in 2009 of which 96 percent was exported, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In India chrysotile asbestos – which is mixed with regular cement to produce cheap roofing, drainpipes and false ceilings – can be freely imported. But the consequences to workers who handle such products are horrendous.
According to Sudhirendar Sharma, noted environmentalist and former consultant to the World Bank, finely powdered asbestos has even been an adulterant in perfumed talcum powder and as a whitener for the prized basmati variety of rice.
“It is truly strange that the Canadian government knowingly exports a product that has the potential to kill thousands of people in India and that the Indian government continues allow its import,” Sharma said.
Sharma said that Canadian exporters and Indian importers were powerful enough to get chrysotile excluded from the Rotterdam Convention (1994) on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
“Without official patronage a product, banned in the European Union, Australia and Japan cannot continue to be so easily imported into India,” Sharma said. “The fact that India slashed the import duty on asbestos from 78 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2004 speaks volumes.”
Last week, BANI issued a statement condemning the signing of a memorandum of understanding on Dec. 31, 2010, between the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal and the Indian Merchants’ Chamber on the so-called safe use of asbestos, ahead of a trade mission to India.
“The signing of this agreement reveals the callous disregard of the Quebec- based asbestos mining companies and Indian asbestos product manufacturing companies towards the health of Indians,” the statement said.
“We are concerned that the Jan. 30-Feb. 4 trade mission to India led by Clement Gignac, Quebec’s economic development minister, included a representative of Balcorp Ltd., a major exporter,” Krishna said.
Balcorp is part of a consortium pushing to reopen the privately owned Jeffrey Asbestos mines in Canada, one of the world’s largest open-pit asbestos mining operations.
On Dec. 31, 2010, Turkey joined a growing list of over 55 countries that have prohibited the mining, trade, manufacturing and use of asbestos of all kinds in the interest of their citizens’ health.
“Indian policymakers must take care not to succumb to pressure from the likes of Clément Godbout, president of the asbestos lobby group that includes the Chrysotile Institute, Chrysotile Asbestos Products Manufacturers and Asbestos Information Centre,” Krishna said.
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