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Indian corporates 'guilty of using' deadly asbestos mostly imported from Russia

By Dr Gopal Krishna* 

Responding to a letter addressed to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on the subject of "Why India must support inclusion of Chrysotile asbestos in the UN’s list of Rotterdam Convention", Hazardous Substances Division, Ministry of Environment Forests & Climate Change has informed on 26 June, 2023 that “the decision to include chrysotile asbestos in the UN list was deferred at the eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (RC COP-11) in Geneva during 1-12 May 2023.”
MoEFCC has concluded that “the agenda items related to Chrysotile Asbestos, was deferred as consensus was not reached on its listing in Annex III” of the UN’s Rotterdam Convention. Prior to this meeting of COP-6, COP-7, COP-8, and COP-9 decided to defer further consideration of the chemical to their corresponding subsequent meeting. At COP-10,the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, India and Pakistan, and the International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations “Chrysotile” opposed its listing a midst vociferous demand for its listing by environmental, occupational and human rights groups.
It may be recalled that Chrysotile asbestos is a candidate chemical in the category of industrial chemicals that has been recommended by the Chemicals Review Committee for listing in Annex III to the Rotterdam Convention but for which the Conference of the Parties (COP) has not yet been able to reach consensus.
The COP, at its 3rd meeting in 2006, adopted a decision on chrysotile asbestos, which, among others, encourages Parties to make use of all available information to make informed decisions regarding its import and management, and to inform other Parties of those decisions, using the information exchange provisions laid down in Article 14 of the Rotterdam Convention. COP-3 also decided that the agenda for its next ordinary meeting shall include further consideration of a draft decision to amend Annex III to the Rotterdam Convention to include chrysotile asbestos.
At COP-4 a decision was adopted on chrysotile asbestos wherein it was decided that the agenda for its next ordinary meeting shall include further consideration of a draft decision to amend Annex III to the Rotterdam Convention to include chrysotile asbestos. COP-5 was also not able to reach consensus and agreed to annex a draft decision to its report, which is set out in annex IV to the COP-5 report.
MoEFCC’s reply states that it“is the nodal Ministry for coordinating the implementation of the Rotterdam Convention. The convention's objective is to promote shared responsibility and cooperative efforts among parties in the international trade of these chemicals so as to protect human health and the environment, and contribute to the environmentally sound use of chemicals.”
It reveals that “inputs on the agenda items were finalized based on the consultation held with stakeholders including Central Government/Ministries/Agencies.” But it does not disclose the names of the non-governmental stakeholders who were consulted. For long India’s position on chrysotile has remained hostage to the tremendous clout of the Russian asbestos industry and some 18 major manufacturers of asbestos based products in India. Government is yet reveal the names of environmental and occupational health which it consulted in this regard.
In its reply to MoEFCC’s communication ToxicsWatch wrote:
“Instead of waiting for COP-12 of Rotterdam Convention to decide it's inclusion in the UN list, our government should immediately inform the Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention that it supports inclusion of Chrysotile asbestos in the UN list of hazardous chemicals.
“In the aftermath of the reply of our minister of health and chemicals in the Parliament on April 5, 2022 it is evident that out of 2603 workers, 10 cases were found to be suspected cases of asbestos related disorders. This reply echoes the recommendations of the UN’s Chemical Review Committee of the Rotterdam Convention. This is required pursuant to our Occupational Safety Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 that recognises hazardous nature of all kinds of asbestos including the chrysotile asbestos and the diseases caused by it.”

It has drawn the attention of the MoEFCC towards the conviction of Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss asbestos billionaire for manslaughter. He has been found guilty of causing death of 392 people due to carcinogenic asbestos. He has been sentenced to 12 years in jail on aggravated manslaughter charges connected to the deaths of hundreds of people due to asbestos exposure by an Italian court on 7 June, 2023 has lessons for India.
MoEFCC has been told about the conviction of Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss asbestos billionaire, for manslaughter
Similar fate awaits the manufacturers of asbestos based products in India who are endangering the lives of all present and future generations of Indians. The verdict is relevant for India because Eternit company with which he was associated had plants in India as well. There is no public or private building in India which is asbestos free including the new parliament building. It is quite sad that MoEFCC’s continues to grant environmental clearance to asbestos based factories.
Notably, Chief Minister of Bihar has given an assurance in the state legislature that he would not allow asbestos based plants in the state. The construction and operation of five such plants have been stopped. But MoEFCC's EAC has given environmental clearance to a unit of Chennai based Ramco Industries Ltd in Bihiya, Bhojpur, Bihar.
This company is operating two units using clearance for one unit. It is the same company which gave a compensation of Rs 5, 000 on the death of its worker. Bihar State Pollution Control Board had cancelled it NOC but it managed to get relief from Patna High Court on procedural grounds. This company has created a public health crisis in Bihiya, Bhojpur. It is relevant to recollect that Calcutta High Court and Kerala State Human Rights Commission has recommended ban on use of asbestos based products. All the places where asbestos based factories or products are located must be made asbestos free.
There is a compelling logic for government authorities to take cognisance of India’s asbestos legacies, and the implications of the ongoing import, manufacture, procure and use of white chrysotile asbestos mineral fiber despite having banned its mining because it cannot be made safe for human health throughout the life cycle. India uses only imported chrysotile asbestos. Notably, 85% of the imported asbestos is from Russia.
In the backdrop of the Italian court’s verdict, the Government of India and State Governments must ensure compliance with the six specific directions given by Indian Supreme Court on 27 January, 1995 in Consumer Education Resource Centre vs. Union of India case. Both Union and State Governments must issue an order seeking a database of victims of asbestos related diseases, asbestos laden buildings, an inventory of asbestos based products, a database of hospitals which can diagnose the disease and a database of agencies which are competent to decontaminate asbestos from existing buildings.
It is high time the MoEFCC and other ministries of Government of India and concerned departments of State Governments took steps to make the manufacturers of asbestos based products liable for knowingly exposing the present and future generation of Indians to killer fibers. There is a compelling logic for charging these manufacturers with the offence of manslaughter.
When a chemical is listed in Annex III to the Rotterdam Convention, it does not lead to ban of the hazardous chemical. It does not mean the chemical cannot be exported. The listing paves the way for an information-sharing process. It requires the PIC of importing countries to share information about the adverse impact of the chemicals in question. It creates awareness about the harmful effect of the hazardous chemicals.
India’s support for listing of chrysotile asbestos in the UN’s PIC list (Annex III) of hazardous chemicals will be consistent with its domestic laws and Supreme Court’s verdict. It will demonstrate that India’s position with regard to public health is not dependent on the dictates coming from the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, and the International Alliance of Trade Union Organizations “Chrysotile”.



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