Indian Citizens Reject Asbestos
India is awash with asbestos. For over a decade, India has been the world's leading asbestos importer. It has been estimated that since 1960, India has used around 7 million tonnes of asbestos; consumption over the last five years has averaged nearly 350,000 tonnes/year. With government support and no controls on asbestos use, the Indian asbestos-cement sector is thriving. The most recent annual report by Visaka Industries Limited, a major asbestos-cement manufacturer in India (with 2012 net income of $135m+), confirmed an increase in sales of asbestos-cement products of up to 7.5% in 2012. "While this may not be a patch on the good old days when the industry would consistently grow 12-15% a year, the report noted this rebound is reassuring." Visaka is buoyant about the future, predicting a growth of 10% in production in 2012-13; this translates into the manufacture of 725,000 tonnes of asbestos-cement sheets.1 And Visaka is only one of many companies producing asbestos-cement material in India!
In the rush for economic growth, Indian citizens have had scant opportunity to comment on or influence development plans by companies such as Visaka. Events which have taken place in the Indian State of Bihar show that this disenfranchisement will no longer be tolerated. Civil society is demanding a say in whether or not toxic factories spewing out asbestos contamination will be accepted within their communities. The newly raised voice of public opinion and the mobilization by local populations against the citing of asbestos-cement plants in their midst is changing the political, social and economic dynamics of India's damaging asbestos trade.
On January 16, 2013, up to 3,000 people took part in a mass demonstration in Patna, the capital of Bihar State.
Many of the protestors travelled 150 miles from Vaishali, a village strongly opposed to the construction of a local asbestos-cement factory by Utkal Asbestos Ltd. Supporting the protestors at a public rally were members of the Patna Anti-Asbestos Citizens' Forum, medical experts such as Dr Satyajit Singh, Vice President of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, Professor Ishwari Prasad, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, left-wing politicians and trade union leaders. A 12-page memorandum was submitted to the Chief Minister of Bihar State along with a copy of the Patna Declaration adopted on December 24, 2012 at a high-profile Conference on Environment and Occupational Health.
For more than two years people in Vaishali have been voicing their objections to Utkal's plans to impose an asbestos processing facility on their village. As a result of their protests on June 14, 2012, the district administrator put a hold on construction on the designated site. Unfortunately, work began again on December 16, 2012; direct action taken as a result included a mass blockade of the main road from Mahua to Samastipur. Commenting on the protest which took place in Patna earlier this month, Gopal Krishna, of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, said:
The villagers do not want an asbestos factory to be built in Vaishali. They have made their feelings known to the company and to the local authorities. Unfortunately, the collusion between Utkal Asbestos Limited and their political supporters has up till now frustrated legitimate democratic efforts to hold a public enquiry into the green-lighting of the company's plans to designate fertile agricultural land as barren wasteland in order for municipal permission to be granted. The threat to public health which the construction of this factory represents should be acknowledged and acted upon. Given the fact that health is a State subject, without waiting for Central Government to act, the State Government of Bihar can act on its own to protect its citizens and set a precedent for other States to follow.
January 28, 2013