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Unheard voices of victims of asbestos exposure from abandoned asbestos mines in India, Canada & Australia

Written By Unknown on Saturday, July 27, 2013 | 10:18 PM

Speaking at the National Seminar on The Unorganised Sector in India: Extending the Debate to Mining and Quarrying on July 27, 2013 at Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Jaipur, India, Gopal Krishna, the co-founder of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) shared insights from his unfinished paper titled ‘’Unheard voices of victims of asbestos exposure from abandoned asbestos mines in Chaibasa in West Singhbhum, Jharkhand, India, in Quebec, Canada and in Woodsreef, New South Wales, Australia: a case of absence of corporate accountability and stark institutional failure”.

This paper examines the impact of abandoned mines with specific focus on asbestos mines and the case of evasion of accountability by companies which were engaged in asbestos mining. This paper proposes to compare the state of Jeffrey Mine, Quebec, Canada, mine of Roro hills, Jharkhand, India and in Woodsreef mine, New South Wales, Australia.

In Jharkhand, an Indian state death and disease around abandoned asbestos mines of Roro, about 20 kms from Chaibasa in West Singhbhum remains ignored. The paper explores how the communities living in the vicinity of hazardous industrial activity like mining of asbestos do not find mention in the regulatory manuals in place. Some 14 villages in Roro area are routinely exposed to the asbestos fibers from the abandoned asbestos mines. The Roro mines were closed down in 1983 after Hyderabad Asbestos Cement Products Ltd. (now known as Hyderabad Industries Limited) of C K Birla Group found it unprofitable.

In Québec, there were 10 of the 13 mines in Canada. The largest of these was the Jeffrey Mine. At present it is the largest asbestos open pit in the world. It is 2 km in diameter, 350 metres deep and 15.5 sq. km. in total area. With the closure of the Jeffrey Mine (formerly the Johns Manville mine), there were only two operating asbestos mines, the Black Lake and Bell Mines, both owned by LAB Chrysotile in Quebec. The new provincial government of Quebec has decided not support mining of asbestos anymore and support social security measures for the affected communities.   

In Australia, Woodsreef mine, near Barraba, New South Wales was a large scale operation of the Chrysotile Corporation of Australia from 1970 to 1983. The mine was closed and abandoned in 1983 leaving a 117 acre contaminated site besides a dump site containing a 70 meter tall pile of 25 million tonnes of contaminated waste rock also remains. This is only asbestos mines site in New South Wales that is yet to be remediated. A campaign has commenced from April 2013 seeking closure of the road which passes through this region as asbestos fibers which lie abandoned become airborne and pose serious health implications.

As in the case of Roro the tailings area in Quebec and Woodsreef grew as quickly as the pit.

At present there is a moratorium on grant/renewal of asbestos mines as per a letter of Government of India dated July 9, 1986. This paper explores as what led do this continuing moratorium? In the pre-moratorium era workers were knowingly exposed to carcinogenic fibers of asbestos by a company which had engaged them in the mining of asbestos.

The consistent failure of several institutions both at the state and the national level is quite stark. None of the institutions including Union Ministry of Mines, Government of India seem to have heard about public health crisis that has engulfed Roro.

This paper makes a case for complete ban on all kinds mining of asbestos and ensuring legal and medical remedy for the victims of occupational and non-occupational exposure to asbestos. It argues that unless the company which abandoned the asbestos mines is made accountable and liable for its acts of omission and commission, the victims of asbestos related diseases will not get justice in Roro and even in manufacturing and other allied activities of the asbestos industry.      

Gopal Krishna dwelt on the status of asbestos industry in India and how asbestos miners lobby is exerting tremendous pressure on Ministry of Mines to lift the technical ban on asbestos mining. He underlined that Ministry of Labor has announced at a EU-India Seminar in a concept paper that Government of India is planning to ban asbestos. The Ministry has set up an Advisory Committee to incorporate the June 14, 2006 resolution of International Labour Organisation recommending introduction of a ban on all mining, manufacture, recycling and use of all forms of asbestos in compliance with the six specific directions with the order of Supreme Court dated January 27, 1995 in the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 206 of 1986. National Human Rights Commission is seized with the issue. It heard the matter on July 15, 2013.    

The two day seminar was co-organised by Mine Labour Protection Campaign, Oxfam India and Australian National University. 

The other speakers included Sudhansh Pant IAS, Principal Secretary Mining, Rajasthan, Dr. Surjit Singh, Director, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Dr. Katoch Director, Indian Council of Medical Research, Rahul Guha, Director General, Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS), Ministry of Labour and Employment, Devarajan, Member, Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission, Prof. Bipin Jojo, TISS, Justin Imam from Jharkjand, Vikas Bharadwaj, Dang Vikas Sansthan, Prof. Sharit  Bhowmick, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Ashim Roy, NTUI (New Trade Union Initiative), Dr. Felix Padel & Samarendra Das, Centre for World Environmental History, University of Sussex, Dr. Arup Sen, West Bengal, Dr .Molly Chattopadhyay, ISI, Calcutta, Krishnendu Mukherji, Barrister, United Kingdom & Bombay High Court Advocate, India, Tania Cass, Oxfam Australia besides Rana Sengupta of Mine Labour Protection Campaign, Dr. Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Senior Fellow, Australian National University and others.
Sharad C. Sinha, Member, National Human Rights Commission who was supposed to deliver the key note address could not come but his speech was read out.
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