New Delhi: A group of 13 national labour groups and activists accused the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers, along with the asbestos industry, of manipulating information on the hazardous effects to make a case to manufacture asbestos products in the country.
These groups have rested their claims based on the information they obtained by using the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The trade unions argue that the manipulation of information disregards earlier studies, which prove the clear relation between asbestos exposure and lung cancer, because of which 40 countries have banned the use of the white variety of asbestos.
India, however, still imports and manufactures asbestos products. According to the United Nations, India imported about 300,600 tonnes of asbestos in 2006 from Canada and Russia.
India, Canada and Russia are the three countries opposing the ban and restriction on asbestos trade at the Rotterdam Convention, a multilateral agreement promoting open exchange of information on hazardous chemical trade, including proper labelling and informing buyers of any known restrictions or bans.
According to the documents, a letter from the department of chemicals and petrochemicals to the director of the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) in 2006 states that the study should include “generation of data, which would justify the safe standards of its usage as also the reasons/rationale justifying its non-inclusion/or otherwise in the Prior Informed Consent (PIC)”.
Under the Rotterdam Convention, an item in the PIC list would require the exporting country to inform its clients on the hazardous nature of the commodity.
Ministry officials were not available for comment.
The ministry commissioned NIOH to conduct the study in 2004 in light of the proposed inclusion of chrysotile asbestos, the so-called white asbestos, in the PIC list of the convention, which was recommended in 2005 and 2006. The next meeting of the convention will be held in March.
“The decision to include or exclude asbestos from the list will be taken this year. If not included, it will never be,” said Madhumita Dutta from the corporate accountability desk at The Other Media, a not-for profit organization.
Another letter from the ministry to NIOH shows the industry also funded the study. The letter dated April 2006 states, “The government will contribute Rs43.66 lakh, while the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association (ACPMA) would contribute Rs16 lakh towards the total cost of the study.”
A.K. Sethi, executive director of ACPMA, denied its contribution. “NIOH is an autonomous body. Their credibility is well established. Studies by Central Labour Institute say clearly that there is no link between asbestos and lung impairment,” insisted Sethi.
The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people can die before asbestos is banned worldwide. More than 95% of asbestos consumed at present belongs to the white category.
The minutes of the review committee of the ministry said, “It (the study) will specifically indicate as to how technology has made working conditions better. The same will include relevant photographs showing protective measures being taken.”
The asbestos industry in the US has already paid $500 million (Rs1,970 crore today) as compensation to victims of asbestos exposure. “Look at that amount. In India, the highest compensation for 75% grade of asbestosis, which means it is terminal, was Rs1 lakh. Right now, there are about 30 cases pending on compensation,” said Dutta.
Despite repeated attempts to get the study through RTI, the departments refused to give it. “After registering an appeal against the refusal, we now have another meeting on 20 February,” added Dutta.
Though there are alternatives to white asbestos, such as cellulose fibres, carbon fibres and polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA, it is not used much in India. “The countries which have banned asbestos use the alternatives,” said Ashim Roy of New Trade Union Initiative. Sethi, however, said that the same qualities cannot be found in other substances.
In the last budget, the customs duty on chrysotile import was reduced to 15% while in 2000, the customs duty on PVA, a viable alternative, was increased to 72%.