Remembering Nirmala Gurung
It is with great sadness that we report the news that Nirmala Gurung passed away on September 9, 2020. Nirmala was a former teacher and headmistress of a secondary school in the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh. Her engagement in the struggle to ban asbestos initially in India and more latterly around the world was the result of a happenstance. Nirmala became a formidable campaigner, working with grassroots activists at home and film-makers from abroad to raise awareness of the price paid by workers and communities for the asbestos industrys profits.
Her metamorphosis from teacher to activist was the result of the environmental catastrophe which blighted the lives of residents in her village of Kymore, for decades the location of a factory manufacturing asbestos-cement products. The companies which operated this facility were asbestos conglomerates from Britain (Turner and Newall PLC) and Belgium (ETEX/Eternit); when they offloaded their toxic investment they abandoned injured workers, a grossly contaminated environment and an at-risk community without a backward glance and certainly without any compensation payments or remediation work.1
Nirmala never worked at the asbestos factory but that did not save her. Like many Kymore residents, the daily experience of living with high levels of asbestos pollution was enough to affect her; she was diagnosed with asbestosis in 2016. Describing the conditions in Kymore, she said:
During the dry season dry asbestos dust particles even blew into the classrooms. Parents and children used to come into the classroom covered with dust. The owners and workers in the UK and Belgium certainly knew about the hazards of asbestos but did not inform the community.
In 2017, Nirmala agreed to address the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland to expose this toxic legacy. On her first trip to Europe, she stood undaunted in the huge conference hall and told the 2,000 delegates in attendance:
I have seen many victims dying slowly and painfully. Its really horrible to watch a healthy person turn into a skeleton. I wish the coming generation must be saved from this and that first and foremost there is a need for the proper treatment of the asbestos wastage which the factory dumped in the surrounding populated area. Asbestos must be banned and those suffering from asbestos diseases should be compensated.
Barrister Krishnendu Mukherjee accompanied her on that trip and spoke warmly of her participation: The courage that she showed in coming to Geneva to highlight the issue of asbestos waste in her village was inspiring and her legacy will remain. Footage of Nirmalas Geneva experience was featured in the 2018 prize-winning Belgian documentary Breathless and a photograph of her was used to publicize the film.2
In 2019, Nirmala was unable to make a trip to Brasilia to confront asbestos exporters, Supreme Court Judges and decision-makers with the harsh reality for Indian citizens of commercial decisions made in Brazil. Her presence was sorely missed. Her passing will be mourned by those fortunate to have known her and those who just knew her from afar.3
September 18, 2020
1 Madhya Pradesh village sees slow death of hundreds of asbestos victims caused by now closed British, Belgian subsidiary. November 21, 2017.
OEHNI Press Release. Environmental Exposure to Asbestos Kills Indian People Kymore - A Slow-Motion Bhopal. November 2017.
3On September 18, 2020, a video clip was uploaded to YouTube highlighting Nirmala’s campaigning work. It was accompanied by a tribute from fellow activists: “the spirit she left behind will last forever in the hearts of each of us in the India Ban Asbestos Network.”