Thursday, February 23, 2012

Need to Make West Bengal Free of Cancer Causing White Asbestos Fibers


Shri Samar Ghosh
Chief Secretary
Government of West Bengal

Date: 20/2/2012

Subject-Need to Make West Bengal Free of Cancer Causing White Asbestos Fibers


This is 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 West Bengal in particular and in our country in general.

I submit that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), New Delhi has sent you a notice dated July 6, 2011 to ascertain the status of diseases caused asbestos fibers in West Bengal. A copy of the notice is attached. The notice had asked you to file your report within four weeks. If the report that you submitted to NHRC is not a classified document, I wish to request you for a copy of the same.

I wish to inform you that there is hardly any building in West Bengal 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 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. 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:

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, 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 take this opportunity to draw your immediate attention towards the fact that asbestos related diseases are also incurable despite this environmental clearances are still being given by the central environment ministry but health being a state subject, your government can act to safeguard the life of present and future generations by stopping it.

It is sad that a killer fiber like asbestos which is banned in 55 countries is being used in West Bengal 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.

In such a backdrop, it is germane to ask Government of West Bengal to stop manufacturing, procurement and use of all forms of asbestos including white 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 West Bengal too.

In view of the above, it is your solemn duty to protect the residents of West Bengal 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 asbestos as Kerala government acted in the case of Endosufan.

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

Thanking You

Yours Faithfully
Gopal Krishna
ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


In a shocking incident, West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee gave the Environment Excellence Award to Utkal Asbestos Ltd (UAL). In the picture one can see Arun Saraf, Managing Director of the company taking the award from the Chief Minister.

The company was ranked first and has been awarded by West Bengal Cleaner Production Centre, a collaborative effort of West Bengal Polution Control Board and Indian Chamber of Commerce. THe company has a factory unit at Konark Nagar, Tungadhowa, Mohim Nischinta, Paschim Medinipur.

In about 20 years, UAL Industries Ltd., formarly Utkal Asbestos Limited has shown growth in the Asbestos Roofing industry. It is now the leading company with largest market share in the Eastern India.

Its products are sold under the brand name "KONARK". The company's goal is to occupy the field of Asbestos Cement Roofing Sheets and accessories. Its sister concern, Neelachal Natural Resource Pvt. Ltd is also in asbestos business.

UAL's unit situated at Guptamani, Tungadowa, district Midnapore (W), West Bengal. The company has also created a township for its employees at its ‘Tungadhowa Works'. UAL-Bengal a sister concern of Utkal Industries Ltd.

Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) which is working as a National Alliance for Asbestos Free India and Asbestos Mukti Andolan has written to the Chief Minister urging him to ban the use and manufacturing of asbestos of all kinds.

Besides UAL, Visaka Industries has asbestos plants located in Midnapore. Although Centre of Indian Trade Union and All India Trade Union Congress have called for ban on asbestos and have also written to the Prime Minister, the fact remains, that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led West Bengal government has not gotten rid of it from its own backyard.