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Despite UN move seeking support, Govt of India 'apathetic' to hazards of asbestos

Counterview Desk 

In a representation to the Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers, health rights network Occupational & Environmental Health Network India (OEHNI), insisting that the Government of India should support the United Nations move to restrict use of “hazardous asbestos”, has said that the commodity is known to be “carcinogen” and “can also lead to asbestosis and other diseases”.
Stating that “it is not only a hazard for the workers exposed to it in course of mining or manufacturing but a hazard to the non-workers, i.e. citizens also”, OEHNI, in a letter to the Minister signed by its national coordinator Jagdish Patel, says, “More than 60 countries, including our neighbour Nepal, have banned its use, import, export, manufacturing, trading, etc.”
Stating that India has banned mining its but not manufacturing, Patel, however, regrets, “We are 100% dependent on imported asbestos from Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Zimbabwe, etc.”
Underlining the need to sign the Rotterdam Convention, an international treaty to protect citizens from hazards of hazardous chemicals, by putting up restrictions on trade in the commodity, Patel notes, for the last several years global efforts have intensified to regulate chrysotile asbestos, but, unfortunately, Government of India (GoI) is not agreeing.
Stating that the GoI appears to be taking this stand “under the industry, as well as probably Russian pressure”, Patel says, as an importer, it has a duty of GoI “to protect its citizens from the hazards of the chemicals, but instead, it is objecting to the inclusion of this material.”

OEHNI letter to GoI:

We are writing to you regarding the ‘Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade’ and specifically, to seek your support for the amendment proposed for consideration at COP11 in May 2023 put forward by Switzerland, Australia, and Mali.
As is well known, all forms of Asbestos, including Chrysotile are hazardous to human health and carcinogen. More than 60 countries have already banned mining, manufacturing, importing and exporting and trading of all forms of asbestos and its products. Though thousands of workers, their family members and ordinary citizens have been diagnosed suffering from asbestos related diseases, India has continued import of asbestos. It should be noted that Indian Railways has abandoned the use of asbestos roof sheets from the railway platforms and replaced with metal roof sheets.
Coming back to the proposal, this proposal was communicated to all Parties to the Convention by the Secretariat in the six United Nations languages at the end of October 2022. 
The purpose of this letter is to seek your urgent consideration to co-sponsor this amendment.
Why is an amendment needed for the Rotterdam Convention?
This is an important Convention. As you are aware it entered into force in 2004 and presently has 165 Parties to it. The Convention’s objective is to promote shared responsibility and cooperation in the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals to protect human health and the environment from harm and to contribute to the environmentally sound use of those chemicals. The Convention effectively safeguards a ‘right to know’ principle that countries should have a clear understanding of the hazardous chemicals that might enter their countries in order to make decisions about the appropriate regulatory action to protect the environment and human health.
In the 18 years since the Convention came into force it has been unable to meet its full potential. There remain a growing number of hazardous chemicals that meet all conditions to be listed under the Convention. These chemicals are being continually blocked by a small number of parties, despite the Convention´s own scientific committee, the Chemical Review Committee (CRC), determining that they meet all the criteria and recommended them for listing onto Annex III of the Convention.
This is a serious problem, especially for developing countries like ours and countries with economies in transition, which rely on listing to inform national responses to hazardous substances. It means the Concerned Government ministries or the importer in the importing countries are not required to be informed of these hazards of the materials being imported and entering our country. Employers, workers, and consumers in our country may be vulnerable to exposure from these unregulated chemicals. Their ‘right to know’ is not being respected.
To date there are five chemicals recommended for listing in Annex III by the CRC, which have each been blocked by a small group of Parties: acetochlor, carbosulfan, chrysotile asbestos and certain fenthion and paraquat formulations. The longest blocked chemical is chrysotile asbestos. Asbestos, long banned in most Global North countries, is responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 workers every year and is recognised as the cause of more than half of all occupational cancers.[1]
Shockingly, some producers of these blocked hazardous substances are using the non-listing in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention to falsely claim their products are safe, present no risks to health and the environment and falsely try to make it look like this view is supported by many or most of the Parties to the Convention. These actions are directly and seriously undermining the goal and effectiveness of the Convention.
More than 60 countries have banned mining, manufacturing, importing, exporting and trading of all forms of asbestos and its products
During the past ten years there have been numerous attempts and proposals to overcome this blockage. In 2017, at COP8, a group of 12 African Parties proposed to amend the article which requires consensus for listings in Annex III (article 22).[2] There were recurring discussions on ‘improving the effectiveness’ of the Convention over many years. The Secretariat undertook analysis of the operational implications of the different proposals to amend the Convention, including proposals for a voluntary Prior Informed Consent procedure.[3] However, none of these proposals prevailed due to concerns that Annex III might be weakened, or the role of the CRC undermined.
Over the same period there has been a growing level of concern and even frustration amongst many Parties, international organizations, civil society organizations and trade unions about the lack of progress, which is seriously threatening the relevance of the Convention and the health of workers and consumers globally. In their closing statement to the recent COP10 the representative from the European Union, pointed out that “consensus on these decisions is a cornerstone of the Rotterdam Convention. But when progress cannot be made otherwise, we have to engage in a profound reflection on the decision-making process. The EU and its member states are fully committed to participate in that discussion during the intercessional period so that we find long-term solutions at the next COP to the deadlock we have reached.”
The proposed amendments to be considered at COP11 offer a new solution to improve the effectiveness of the Convention that builds on the work undertaken by Parties to date whilst also protecting the consensus principle at its core. In summary the amendments proposed will:
  •  Establish a new annex (Annex VIII) where chemicals that have been found by the CRC to meet the criteria for listing in Annex III, but for which the COP is not able to agree by consensus to list are able to be listed. These chemicals must receive the support of a three quarters majority vote to list in new Annex VIII.
  • For chemicals listed in the new Annex VIII, the prior informed consent procedure would also apply, but with the important new modification that an explicit consent will be required.
  • For Annex III listings the present process, of consensus would, however, remain unchanged.
  • It will remain possible, for future COPs to, where consensus exists, transfer chemicals listed in Annex VIII to Annex III.
The explicit consent requirement for an Annex VIII listing is an important new element as it means that the procedures for chemicals listed in the new Annex VIII will be stricter than in the case of Annex III. This requirement will strengthen the Convention and preserve Annex III and its listing procedures.
Finally, it is important to note that the proposed amendments will not affect the operations of the CRC, nor its review and recommendation process. The rights and obligations regarding chemicals listed in Annex VIII would only apply to those Parties who ratify the Convention.
The OEHNI believes the proposal for consideration at COP11 is balanced and reasonable and it is crucial it receives the 75% needed to be adopted. We therefore urge the Government of India to support this proposed amendment and to also co-sponsor it.
The current deadlock is threatening the viability of the Convention and the health of the health of workers, consumers and the community.
We would like to once again urge you to lend your full hearted support to this proposal and co-sponsor it.
The Ministry needs to think seriously on protecting the citizens from hazards of asbestos. Before we ban it completely, let this be a first step in the right direction.
[1] Chrysotile asbestos has been recommended for listing by the CRC since 2006. Yet the listing of this well-known hazardous carcinogen has been blocked for 14 years. Chrysotile asbestos is the only form of asbestos traded in recent decades and is recognised broadly as responsible for the vast majority of the estimated 209,000 deaths each year attributable to occupational exposure to asbestos (WHO/ILO joint estimates of the work-related burden of disease and injury, 2000-2016: global monitoring report).
[2] UNEP/FAO/RC/COP.9/13/Add.1



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