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NHRC seeks 'additional information' about asbestos deaths and diseases in India

Written By Gopal Krishna on Thursday, May 01, 2014 | 1:53 AM


India continues to ignore recommendations of ILO and WHO for banning use of all forms of asbestos to save workers, their families and consumers

Certified victims of asbestos related diseases in Gujarat yet to be compensated despite Supreme Court's order 

Bihar Chief Minister's intervention led to stoppage of construct


ion of asbestos plant in Vaishali despite threats from centre and biased report from Central Pollution Control Board

May 1, 2014: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which is seized with a complaint alleging that about thousands of people die every year in the country due to Asbestos related cancer has sought 'additional information' about asbestos deaths and diseases in India and scheduled first week of June 2014 for the next hearing.

The complainant has sought Commission's intervention for a ban on the use of Chrysotile Asbestos (White Asbestos), which is hazardous for the health of people and causes various incurable diseases. The white Asbestos is a fibrous material used for building roofs and walls and various in other forms.

Dealing with Case No.:2951/30/0/2011, on March 31, 2014, NHRC issued its directions saying, "The Commission while considering the matter on 5.8.2013 inter alia observed and directed as under:- "Pursuant to the directions of the Commission, requisite reports have been received from Director of Industries, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh, Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (Cement Section), Ministry of Commerce and Industry, New Delhi, National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad and Department of Chemical and Petrochemical, New Delhi."

The Commission had issued notices to the Secretaries of Ministries of Chemical Fertilizers, Environment and Forest, Health and Family Welfare, Industry and Commerce, Labour and Chief Secretaries of all the States/Union Territories calling for status reports within four weeks on the issues raised in the complaint.

NHRC's direction reads: "A communication dated 17.5.2013 has been received from the Senior Admin Officer, Tata Memorial Centre, Advanced Centre for Treatment Research & Education in Cancer, Navi Mumbai informing that they have forwarded the Commission's directions to the Director, Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai for their review and reply to the NHRC directly as this case pertains to Cancer Epidemiology Division of TMH. However, no response has been received from Director, Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Hospital Mumbai, so far. Registry is, therefore, directed to issue reminder to Director, Cancer Epidemiology, Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai to submit the required report within six weeks."

"Ms. Rashmi Virmani and Ms. Mukta Dutta, Counsel on behalf of Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association appeared before the Commission today and sought time to submit suggestions. Their request has been granted." Pursuant to the above directions of the Commission, Shri Rajeev K. Virmani, Sr. Advocate, Ms. Rashmi Virmani and Ms. Mukta Dutta, Counsel on behalf of Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association (ACPMA) appeared before the Commission today. The Counsel for the ACPMA has stated that the Supreme Court has already dealt with the case and therefore, NHRC may not consider the case and dispose of the same. After hearing them, the Commission stated that the Commission is only concerned with the 'Right to Health' of the people, which is guaranteed under the Constitution of India, and also whether the directions of the Supreme Court in this regard are being complied with by different agencies/industries."

The direction reads: "Registry to issue reminder to Director, Tata Memorial Centre, Navi Mumbai to send the requisite report sought for by the Commission within six weeks. The complainant has made a complaint regarding the painful death of Virendra Kumar Singh @ Barak Yadav, an asbestos worker who worked in the factory of Ramco Industries in Bhojpur, Bihar vide his communication dated 27.1.2014. He may be at liberty to produce the medical report, if any, and other details regarding the death of Virendra Kumar @ Barak Yadav to the Commission within six weeks. DC, Bhojpur, Bihar also is requested to inquire into the death of Virendra Kumar @ Barak Yadav who worked in the factory of Ramco Industries in Bhojpur, Bihar and furnish a report within six weeks. Vide letter dated 14th September, 2013, Shri Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch Alliance, New Delhi has made another complaint regarding harassment meted out to him by the Utkal Asbestos Limited (UAL), Member of Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association as he is pursuing the matter relating to hazardous effects of Asbestos in the NHRC. Let this complaint/letter be de-linked from Case File No. 2951/30/0/2011 and registered as a separate case. List this matter in the 1st week of June, 2014."

Citing contradictory position of the Government on the issue the complainant, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) has alleged that though the mining of Asbestos has been technically banned by the government, but it allows its import and that too from the countries which do not prefer its domestic use. Banned in over 50 countries, white Asbestos is considered a hazardous chemical substance for environment by a number of countries in the world. However, it is being used in a number of industries in India affecting the workers employed their in. WHO and ILO have recommended ban on all form of asbestos including white chrysotile asbestos to prevent incurable but preventable deaths and diseases.   

The complainant has also requested for grant of a compensation package for present and future victims of Asbestos diseases.

In his reply submitted to NHRC in this very case, Raman Maheria, Joint Secretary, Labour and Employment Department, Government of Gujarat submitted the Action Taken Report furnished by the Director Industrial Safety & Health, Gujarat State. In this reply it is stated that “Asbestosis is declared as notifiable occupational diseases in Third Schedule under section 89 and 90 of the Factories Act. The workers working in the registered factories are eligible for compensation either under the Employees Compensation Act, 1923 or under the Employees State Insurance Act.”

The reply reveals that “22 workers of Gujarat Composite Ltd, Kaligam, Ahmedabad, who were suspected victims of asbestosis were sent for medical check-up to National Institute of Occupational Health. Out of them, following two workers were confirmed for Asbestosis by N.I.O.H.: (1) Shri Hazarilal Manraj and (2) Shri Sahejram B Yadav.”

The reply discloses that “Letters dated 24/12/2002, 16/10/2006 and 19/1/2007 were issued to the Gujarat Composite Ltd. to pay compensation of Rs 1 lac to the above two victims as per the direction of the Supreme Court. Gujarat Composite Ltd. has denied to pay compensation to the above workers as the company has challenged the report of N.I.O.H. This fact is mentioned in the affidavit made before the Hon’ble Supreme Court that the Gujarat Composite Ltd. has not paid the compensation to the victims as per the directions given in the Writ Petition (C) No. 206/1986. Thus, the State Government has taken all the steps required for the protection of workers from Asbestosis in factories of Gujarat State.”  It may be noted that Gujarat Composite Ltd (formerly named Digvijay Cement Company) appears to be attempting to hide behind myriad corporate veils by changing names and by outsourcing its work (to agencies like Apurva Vinimay and Infrastructure Division).     

The reply does not disclose that there is a case of 62 workers pending in the Gujarat Human Rights Commission wherein 23 workers have been medically examined at the direction of the State Human Rights Commission but their report was not shared.               

The reply submits that Government of Gujarat has adopted the ILO Convention on Asbestos (Convention 162) of 1986. It has ignored the ILO Resolution of June 14, 2006, Its clause 2  reads: The ILO Asbestos Convention, 1986 (No. 162), provides for the measures to be taken for the prevention and control of, and protection of workers against, health hazards due to occupational exposure to asbestos. Key provisions of Convention No. 162 concern: – replacement of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos with other materials or products evaluated as less harmful, – total or partial prohibition of the use of asbestos or of certain types of asbestos or products containing asbestos in certain work processes, – measures to prevent or control the release of asbestos dust into the air and to ensure that the exposure limits or other exposure criteria are complied with and also to reduce exposure to as low a level as is reasonably practicable.  Its clause 4 in paragraph 3 reads: “The Resolution also underlined that the ILO Convention on Safety in the Use of Asbestos, No. 162, should not be used to provide a justification for, or endorsement of, the continued use of asbestos.”

This Resolution concerning asbestos was adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 95th Session in 2006 calls for “the elimination of the future use of asbestos and the identification and proper management of asbestos currently in place as the most effective means to protect workers from asbestos exposure and to prevent future asbestos-related diseases and deaths”.

In his reply Raman Maheria, Joint Secretary, Labour and Employment Department, Government of Gujarat has enclosed the notification of Union Ministry of Labour and Employment constituting an Advisory Committee in pursuance of the judgement of Hon’ble Supreme Court.

There are four terms of reference (TOR) of this Advisory Committee. Two of these TORs deal with ‘ILO guidelines’ and ‘fresh resolution passed by ILO”. The reply does not recognize that the ‘fresh resolution passed by ILO’ refers to the above mentioned June 2006 resolution.
              
Director Industrial Safety & Health, Gujarat State has filed the ‘Compliance Report of Para 16 of Directions of the Supreme Court in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 260 of 2004. This document submits that “Use of Crocidolite and product containing this fiber is prohibited in the State as per the guide line of the ILO convention 162 for Asbestos. This report does not reveal how Hon’ble Court’s direction regarding ‘fresh resolution passed by ILO” seeking elimination of future use of asbestos is being complied with.   

In a separate evasive reply, V R Ghadge, Senior Environment Engineer, Gujarat Pollution Control Board has failed to reveal the status of asbestos related diseases in the asbestos based factories in the State and the procurement of asbestos based products by the State Government and the residents of the State. It does concede that “Asbestos” is identified as having hazardous properties with regard to health effects but its reply is highly unsatisfactory given the fact that Gujarat is emerging as the asbestos disease capital of India. In fact the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 206 of 1986 in which the Hon’ble Supreme Court gave the directions with regard to adverse impact of asbestos industry in 1995 was filed due to cases of asbestos victims in Gujarat.       

Even this somewhat lackadaisical letter which is confining itself to the Asbestos containing material management at Bhavnagar’s Alang Ship Breaking Yard generated during shipbreaking activity, it has not disclosed the findings of the study by National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad undertaken in compliance of the instructions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court constituted Technical Experts Committee. The same was filed in the Hon’ble Court revealing how 16 % of the workers on the Alang beach involved in ship breaking are exposed to asbestos fibers. 

It is noteworthy that Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu, the UN Special Rapporteur who vison the adverse effects of the movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights who visited India notes, "most workers, but reportedly also a number of yard owners, are not aware of the serious life-threatening work-related diseases which may result from long-term exposure to toxic and hazardous substances and materials present on end-of-life ships. In particular, it appears that the majority of the workforce and the local population do not know the adverse consequences of prolonged exposure to asbestos dusts and fibres and are not familiar with the precautions that need to be taken to handle asbestos-containing materials." Not surprisingly, some 200 migrant workers from UP, Bihar, Jharkahnd and Odisha have died on Alang beach between 2001 and 2014. This figure is only for deaths due to accidents. The deaths and diseases due to exposures to asbestos fibers is not even recorded but lack of documentation does not mean absence of occupational health crisis in Alang.   

It has come to light from the Office Memorandum dated May 2011 that Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF)’s Standing Monitoring Committee (SMC) on Shipbreaking has suggested that monitoring of asbestos in ambient air at shipbreaking yards on Alang beach “shall be commissioned by GMB for carrying out the same by a reputed institute like NIOH, as a one time study.” The facts is Asbestos cannot be handled safely or in a controlled manner. Therefore, International Labour Organisation’s resolution of June 2006 and World Health Organisation’s resolution of 2005 seek elimination of future use of asbestos. Indian workers in general and migrant workers of Alang should not be made to handle asbestos under any situation.

The reply does not reveal the health status of the workers at the asbestos cement sheet plant in Kachchh in Gujarat operated by Ramco Industries. It is totally silent about the health impact of asbestos units like Charminar Asbestos, Royal Asbestos, Supreme Asbestos Trading Company,  Eagle Asbestos Pvt Ltd, Shree Khodiyar Asbestos Company, Shiv Shakti Enterprises, Royal Asbestos and several others. The reply of Gujarat Government has failed to report whether Gujarat State has the environmental and occupational health infrastructure in place to diagnose asbestos related diseases.     

Meanwhile, following Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar's intervention and support of the left parties and AAP leader Medha Patkar against anti-asbestos struggle Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) has refused the permission for construction of asbestos based plant proposed by UAL Industries Limited in Vaishali in the face of threats from centre and an unfavourable and biased report from Central Pollution Control Board.

Notably, as Bihar's Environment Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, Sushil Kumar Modi had supported construction of asbestos factories in Bihar's Bhojpur amid densely populated villages of Bihiya and Koilwar blocks and he had misled Bihar's State Assembly about Supreme Court's decision on hazardous substances like asbestos that has sought compliance with ILO resolution 2006 seeking elimination of asbestos.

For Details: Gopal Krishna, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA), Mb: 08227816731, 09818089660, E-mail:gopalkrishna1715@gmail.com, Web:www.toxicswatch.org

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