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Need for budgetary provisions to make India free of lung cancer causing white asbestos fibers

Written By Krishna on Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 10:57 AM


Shri Pranab Mukherjee,

Union Finance Minister

Government of India

New Delhi

Date: 23/2/2012

Subject-Need for budgetary provisions to make India free of lung cancer causing white asbestos fibers


This is with reference to the inclusion of asbestos under Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna in your 2011-12 Union Budget, I wish to submit that it is hardly sufficient due to almost non-existent environmental and occupational health infrastructure in our country. It is about time this year’s Union Budget put public health ahead of blind profiteering at the cost of the lives of present and future generations in the matter of environmental and occupational health. “The WHO estimates that 24 per cent of global disease burden and 23 per cent of all deaths can be attributed to environmental factors. The burden is more on the developing than the developed countries.” The asbestos promoters and entrepreneurs know exactly what the health consequences would be and still they have misled the government to provide them incentives for long.

I wish to draw your urgent attention in the matter of a serious unprecedented environmental and occupational health crisis with regard to the unnoticed asbestos epidemic in the country due to alarming rise in its consumption encouraged by the fiscal incentives given by the government.

In such a backdrop, there is a compelling reason to ask you to unveil a fiscal regime that discourages manufacturing, procurement and use of all products based on all forms of asbestos including white asbestos (chrysotile).

It is not surprising that "The Government of India is considering the ban on use of chrysotile asbestos in India to protect the workers and the general population against primary and secondary exposure to Chrysotile form of Asbestos." It has noted that "Asbestosis is yet another occupational disease of the Lungs which is on an increase under similar circumstances warranting concerted efforts of all stake holders to evolve strategies to curb this menace". A concept paper by Union Ministry of Labour revealed this at the two-day 5th India-EU Joint Seminar on “Occupational Safety and Health” on 19th and 20th September, 2011. (Reference: http://www.labour.nic.in/lc/Background%20note.pdf)

I submit that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi has sent a notice dated July 6, 2011 to the central government to ascertain the status of diseases caused asbestos fibers in the country. A copy of the notice is attached.

I wish to inform you about the guilty verdict of a court in Turin, Italy that provides legal remedy for a public health and environmental disaster that claimed thousands of lives due to the criminal callousness of asbestos company. The 3-judge panel of the Turin Court, Italy sentenced the owners of asbestos company, the defendants to 16 years in jail on February 13, 2012. In view of the same I urge you to provide a road map for the phase out of asbestos products in the upcoming Budget Session of the Indian Parliament.

I submit that Renato Balduzzi, Italian Health Minister has applauded the verdict by the Turin court as "without exaggeration, truly historic". The silence of India’s Union Health Minister in the matter of public health crisis due to asbestos exposure is deafening but appears understandable because trade in hazardous substances like asbestos does not fall under its ambit.

I wish to inform that the Turin court has ordered asbestos company, Eternit’s owners to pay a total of €95 million in compensation to the families of the victims, to the town of Casale, trade unions and other parties. Damages are also to be determined in a separate civil proceeding to victims’ relatives and to a number of local authorities. I hope that you will initiate steps in the Parliament to equip the legal system so that they can provide remedies to present and future victims of asbestos fibers.
This verdict came in the criminal trial of 64 years old Swiss Stephan Schmidheiny and 89 year old lead Belgian shareholder Louis de Cartier who owned and managed a company called Eternit that made asbestos-cement building products in many countries in Europe, South America, and South Africa. Eternit closed its operations in Italy in 1986. The verdict was read out after 66 hearings. Schmidheiny and Cartier were accused of causing “permanent health and environmental catastrophe” at their asbestos based plants. The victims were exposed to asbestos fibers.

I submit that Indian asbestos products manufacturers are also causing “permanent health and environmental catastrophe” in India. Similar fate awaits the asbestos product manufacturers in India.

I submit that globally asbestos industry is on trial. Countries after countries are passing verdicts against it. They are banning future use of the cancer causing mineral fiber of asbestos. Government of India is publicly revealing that it does not favour new asbestos plants in the country any more. There is a compelling logic emerging for pre-existing asbestos based plants to shift to non-asbestos based building materials.

I submit that there is hardly any building in our country which is asbestos free. It is high time efforts are initiated to decontaminate asbestos laden public and private buildings. It is relevant to note that Kerala State Human Rights Commission has recommended ban on use of asbestos roofs for schools and hospitals in its order dated n 31st January, 2009.

I submit that NHRC 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 wish to draw your attention towards the fact that asbestos cement based building materials are being used in the Union Rural Development Ministry’s Indira Awas Yojna, this will have grave public health consequences. It is sad that central government’s definition of roofing material includes asbestos cement sheet along with Reinforced Brick Concrete and timber etc as per Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

I submit that unmindful of the impending health crisis, the asbestos cement manufacturers are celebrating thrust given by the central government on rural housing through Indira Awaas Yojana because asbestos cement product sector derives sizeable portion of its demand from rural housing sector and remaining demand from industrial sheds. Central government’s Rs 10, 000 crore worth annual housing flagship scheme, Indira Awaas Yojana endangers the rural poor as its is using carcinogenic asbestos sheets to keep the cost below the ceiling of Rs 45,000 per house under the scheme. The National Human Rights Commission member, Shri Satyabrata Pal, a retired 1972 batch IFS officer has raised questions on the hazards as per a news report (Country’s flagship housing scheme turning out to be a debt trap, Iftikhar Gilani, Dec 26, 2011, DNA). Your immediate intervention can stop the crisis from assuming serious proportion.

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.

I submit that the year 2011 will be remembered for a successful villagers’ struggle against a asbestos plant proposed by Kolkata based company Balmukund Cement & Roofing Ltd in Chainpur-Bishunpur, Marwan Block, Muzaffarpur district, Bihar that led to the winding up of the plant as per a communication from the Chairman, Bihar State Human Rights Commission.

In view of the incontrovertible adverse health effects asbestos based plants and products should be phased out to protect the lives of present and future generations.

I wish to inform that Union Environment Ministry s Vision Statement on Environment and Human Health says, "Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent possible and use of asbestos may be phased out." Despite this environmental clearances are still being given by the central environment. Your intervention can safeguard the life of present and future generations.

May I reiterate that Union Ministry of Chemicals has rightly disassociated itself from countries like Russia and Canada who derailed the international consensus that could have categorised white asbestos (chrysotile) as a hazardous substance.

Sir, if you can take cognizance of the global and national developments, the Union Budget may see the beginning of the end of the asbestos manufacturing industry in India given the fact that it’s mining is already banned by Union Mines Ministry.

In such a backdrop, Union Commerce Ministry should be asked to desist from signing the "Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement" with Canada that allows import of Canadian asbestos to India. Incidentally, work is on to decontaminate the offices and homes of members of the Canadian House of Commons which have asbestos. The government has stated publicly that it does not favour new asbestos plants in the country any more.

It is sad that a killer fiber like asbestos which is banned in 55 countries is being used in our country to manufacture asbestos cement sheets disregarding the fatal health impact for present and future generations. Such plants and products should be stopped to save residents from incurable lung cancer like diseases.

I submit that 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 India'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.

I submit that some typical asbestos-based materials include sound insulation infill, thermal insulation lagging, tape, rope, felts, blankets, mattresses, asbestos boards, gaskets and washers, drive belts/ conveyor belts, roofing sheets and slates, drain and flue pipes, rainwater goods, fascia boards, bath panels, ceiling tiles, toilet seats, cisterns, bitumen damp proof course, lining to walls, lab bench tops, extraction hoods and fume cupboards, brakes and clutches, cooling tower elements and others.

I submit that 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.

I submit that since June 2011 Government of India has also agreed at the UN meeting to include white asbestos (chrysotile) in the list of hazardous substances.

I submit that the verdict even by the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Appellate Body (AB) 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.

I submit that India is the largest importer of asbestos, according to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database. Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets as building material.

In our country, it has been estimated by a Canadian jurist that approximately 50, 000 people die every year due to asbestos related cancer. But so far Government of India and state governments 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. It is a matter of fact that health is a state subject.

In such a context, I appeal to you to take note of:

• Resolutions of WHO and ILO (2005 and 2006 seeking elimination of future use of asbestos including chrysotile asbestos worldwide

• Need 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

• 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

• 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

• 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

• The World Health Organisation estimates 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

• 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.

I submit that Canadian government which exports chrysotile asbestos to India has removed these carcinogenic fibers from Canadian Parliament and its Prime Minister's Home. It indeed strange that 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!

Sir, 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 our country too.

In view of the above, it is your solemn duty to protect the present and future citizens from the exposure of fibers of chrysotile asbestos.

All the groups working on human rights, labour rights, health rights and environmental justice will appreciate if you can intervene urgently in the matter of chrysotile.

I will be happy to share reference documents and more information in this regard.

Thanking You

Yours Faithfully
Gopal Krishna
ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA)
Mb: 9818089660
Email: krishna1715@gmail.com
Web: toxicswatch.blogspot.com
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