National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)
Subject- Reference Complaint No. 41418/15 April, 2010, seeking recommendation listing of chrysotile asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure list of hazardous materials at the 5th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP5) to the UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (20 to 24 June, 2011, Geneva)
I wish to congratulate you for ensuring that NHRC (India) retained its “A” status in its accreditation with the International Coordinating Committee of the National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), Geneva which it has been holding since 1999 under UN’s “Paris Principles”.
This status has been achieved and maintained because of the pro-active role of NHRC for the protection of human rights causes not only within the country but even in International Conventions as an independent body.
I would, in particular, like to mention the bold and independent stand taken by NHRC in the matter of ban on Endosulfan wherein it urged the Government of India to join the international consensus against it in the UN's Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). This position of NHRC has been deemed quite progressive world over. Endosulfan was banned in most of the countries but Government of India had not taken a pro-public health position on it.
I submit that NHRC’s recommendation in the matter of Preventive Remedial Rehabilitative and Compensation for victims of lung disease-Silicosis. Such steps of NHRC and sensitivity towards environment and pollution related crimes are commendable.
Similar to silicosis, asbestos related diseases are also incurable. Asbestos death toll has surpassed traffic fatalities in Australia. In US, every year 10, 000 people are dying because of asbestos related disease. There is an epidemic of asbestos diseases in Europe. In India, a silent Bhopal disaster is happening every year. The rate of consumption of asbestos in India is rising at an alarming rate due to budgetary support. Nearly all of Indi 's asbestos is mixed with cement to form roofing sheets. Bolstered by asbestos import tariffs that have been reduced from 78% in the mid-1990s to 15% by 2004, the country's asbestos-cement industry is increasing by roughly 10% every year. Since 2003, companies no longer require a special licence to import chrysotile asbestos.
Since 1960, India has incorporated about 7 million tonnes of asbestos into its buildings. The health consequences are already apparent, but the scale of the problem is not clear because there is no documentation of disease caused by environmental and occupational factors. “The Government of India has a very poor, almost non-existent, system to record death and disease”, explains Arthur Frank from Drexel University , Philadelphia , PA , USA who was in New Delhi in March 2011. Besides, cancer is not a notifiable disease. Prof. Frank cited a hospital in Mumbai which sees a dozen cases of mesothelioma every year. Studies have shown high rates of asbestosis among workers in the industry, including in those whose exposure to the material has spanned less than 5 years. There has been no real assessment of [asbestos-related disease] to the point that you can get accurate figures.
Like Endosulfan, several attempts have been made to include chrysotile asbestos (White Asbestos) on the UN’s prior informed consent list of hazardous chemicals due to non-cooperative role of the Government of India and exporting countries like Canada, the UN Convention has failed to do so.
Chrysotile asbestos is banned in 55 countries, including the European Union and Japan etc. The verdict even by the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Appellate Body (AB) which validated the rights of Member States to prohibit the import and use of goods which contain carcinogenic substances such as chrysotile asbestos (white asbestos) is noteworthy. On March 12, 2001 the WTO's Appellate Body (AB) issued its ruling in the case of Canada vs. the European Communities Measures Affecting Asbestos and Asbestos-Containing Products. It noted that safe and controlled use of chrysotile asbestos is impossible.
India is the largest importer of asbestos, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database. Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets as building material.
In such a backdrop, it is submitted that in an order dated January 21, 201, Hon’ble Supreme Court’s bench of Chief Justice of India Justice S.H. Kapadia, Justice K.S. Panicker Radhakrishnan and Justice Swatanter Kumar has observed in para 15, “the Government has already presented the Bill in Rajya Sabha. The statement of objects and reasons of this Bill specifically notices that the white asbestos is highly carcinogenic and it has been so reported by the World Health Organisation. In India, it is imported without any restriction while even its domestic use is not preferred by the exporting countries.”
The Bench of Chief Justice of India notes, “Canada and Russia are the biggest exporters of white asbestos. In 2007, Canada exported 95% of the white asbestos, it mined out of which 43% 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 Bill is yet to be passed but it is clearly demonstrated that the Government is required to take effective steps to prevent hazardous impact of use of asbestos.”
It is also noteworthy that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) too has passed an order in Case No: 693/30/97-98 recommending that the asbestos sheets roofing be replaced with roofing made up of some other material that would not be harmful.
I submit that the Annual Report of NHRC 2003-2004 refers to a Report entitled “Asbestos – Health and Environment – an in-depth Study “submitted by the Institute of Public Health Engineers, India. The study underlines that safe and controlled use of asbestos is not possible.
It is relevant to point out that asbestos waste (dust and fibers) has been treated hazardous in all forms and has been banned under Hazardous Wastes Management Rules farmed under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. In our country, approximately 50, 000 people die every year due to asbestos related cancer. But so far Government of India has failed to take a pro-people’s health position and a scientific stand on the import of chrysotile asbestos whose mining is technically banned in India.
I submit that there is a nexus of political class and business class which is not allowing Government of India to take steps to protect human health from the lethal fibers of chrysotile asbestos. It is relevant to note that Kerala State Human Rights Commission has recommended ban on use of asbestos roofs for schools and hospitals.
In this regard, I may point out that NHRC’s urgent attention is required towards the 5th Conference of the Parties (COP5) to the UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade to be held in Geneva during June 20-24, 2011 wherein the fate of Endosulfan, Chrysotile asbestos and some other chemicals will be decided for inclusion in the UN list of hazardous chemicals.
Having succeeded in, blocking UN recommendations on, four previous occasions, there is little doubt that, chrysotile asbestos producers will repeat their obstructive, behaviour at the COP-5, Rotterdam Convention held in Geneva. It is high time Government of India is asked to detach itself from the unethical practice of chrysotile asbestos producing countries.
The objective of the Rotterdam Convention “is to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among Parties in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals in order to protect human health and the environment from potential harm.”
In order to meet its objective, COP5 of Rotterdam Convention will consider the inclusion in Annex III of chrysotile asbestos, Endosulfan and other chemicals under agenda item 5 c.
It is noteworthy that the inclusion in Annex III does not equate to a prohibition of trade. It imposes requirements on exporting nations to provide basic information to consumers and customers environmental health hazards due to certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade.
It appears that Government of India has been misled about the toxicity of to chrysotile asbestos. As a consequence, the global public opinion and Indian citizens have begun to consider Indian chrysotile asbestos companies as the main obstacle to the inclusion of chrysotile asbestos in the list of UN agreement on hazardous chemicals.
I submit that a just transition program for asbestos workers, their families and communities around asbestos plants and products is urgently required, the NHRC may recommend to Government of India to adopt such a program.
In such a context, I appeal to NHRC to ask Government of India:
• To comply with the resolutions of WHO and ILO (2005 and 2006 seeking elimination of future use of asbestos including chrysotile asbestos worldwide
• To announce the compensation package for present and future victims of asbestos diseases as it has done in the case of Silicosis and make the asbestos companies criminally liable for knowingly exposing citizens and consumers of asbestos products
• To take note of Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ministry's statement in Rajya Sabha saying: "Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, have shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma'' on August 18, 2003
• To take cognisance of the order of Hon’ble Supreme Court’s bench of Chief Justice of India dated January 21, 2011
• To take note of The White Asbestos (Ban on Use and Import) Bill, 2009 introduced in Rajya Sabha and the order of the Kerala State Human Rights Commission dated 31st January 2009 banning the use of asbestos in schools and hospitals
• To consider the deliberations of the International Conference on "Emerging Trends in Preventing Occupational Respiratory Diseases and Cancers in Workplace" at Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi in March 2011 following which New Delhi Declaration Seeking Elimination of all forms of Asbestos including Chrysotile from India on 24 March, 2011
• To take note of the fact that every international health agency of repute including the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the American Cancer Society agree there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Most recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reconfirmed that all commercial asbestos fibers - including chrysotile, the most commercially used form of asbestos - cause lung cancer and mesothelioma. In addition, IARC newly confirmed that there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes ovarian cancer and reconfirmed asbestos causes laryngeal cancer
• To recall that the World Health Organisation's latest estimate notes that asbestos already claims 107,000 lives a year. Even that conservative estimate means every five minutes around the clock a person dies of asbestos related disease. The ongoing use of the asbestos fibre kills at least 300 people every day
• To respect the scientific process of the Rotterdam Convention and approve the recommendations of the Chemical Review Committee to list chrysotile asbestos in the PIC list of hazardous substances
• To refer to World Bank's Asbestos Good Practice Guidelines. These Guidelines, as well as its earlier Environmental, Health & Safety General Guidelines, require that the use of asbestos must be avoided in new construction in projects funded by the World Bank around the world. The Guidelines also provide information on available safer alternatives to asbestos.
In such a backdrop, it is germane to ask as to why India still a leading importer of chrysotile asbestos.
It is submitted that Canadian government which exports chrysotile asbestos to India has removed it from Canadian Parliament and its Prime Minister's Home. India has technically banned mining of asbestos (including chrysotile) but allows import, manufacture and use of asbestos based products which are proven to be deadly!
The UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade is an important tool to protect human health and the environment by controlling trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides that meet the requirements of the Convention.
It is indeed unbecoming of a small number of Parties to the UN agreement (like Government of India), who have been misguided by commercial interest of chrysotile asbestos companies to the Convention hostage by refusing to cooperate with the scientific process of the Convention and the will of the overwhelming majority or Parties.
It does not behove the stature of Government of India to wield a veto over the Convention against the listing of chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substance and deny itself the sovereign right to utilize the prior informed consent procedure. When a hazardous substance is listed under Annex III of the Convention, Parties like Government of India has the sovereign right to utilize the procedure.
It is an act of immorality of Government of Canada to have prevailed upon Government of India to obstruct the recommendation of the Chemical Review Committee regarding chrysotile asbestos to protect the blind lust for commercial profit at the cost of the health of Indian citizens and workers. It is quite sad that Government of Canada has misinformed and misguided Government of India to deny itself the right to control its own borders from hazardous substances under the manifest influence of chrysotile asbestos companies.
The Rotterdam Convention is based on the principle of environmental justice. It has been witnessed that increasingly, hazardous chemicals and pesticides that are banned or severely restricted in industrialized countries are being shipped to developing countries or countries with economies in transition, where resources to safely monitor and manage these dangerous substances are often lacking or non-existent.
The Rotterdam Convention addresses this inequality in exposure to environmental and human risk by empowering countries with the right to Prior Informed Consent. All Parties to the Convention have a legal and moral obligation to support the right to Prior Informed Consent in the Convention as an important tool for overcoming the widening gap.
You will agree that human biology is same everywhere if the asbestos is deemed hazardous in the developed countries; it must be deemed so in India too.
In view of the above, it is your solemn duty of NHRC to protect Indian citizens from the exposure of fibers of chrysotile asbestos. In pursuance of the same as a first step there is a compelling reason for Government of India to support listing of chrysotile asbestos in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure list of hazardous materials at the 5th meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP5) to the UN's Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (20 to 24 June, 2011, Geneva).
All the groups working on human rights, labour rights, health rights and environmental justice will appreciate if NHRC intervenes urgently in the matter of Chrysotile Asbestos as it did in the case of Endosufan.
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