Serving Krishna Poison
- Proposal to set up an 1.8 lakh tonne per annum asbestos making unit in Andhra’s Krishna district (its third, if it comes up) attracts widespread criticism
- Asbestos is carcinogenic
- Fifty-five countries have banned its mining and use
- India has been phasing out asbestos mining since 1986
It was called a magic mineral till it was found to be carcinogenic. Asbestos, which is used mostly in the construction industry and is known for its durable, fire-resistant quality and cheap price, is now primarily associated with lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer that develops from the protective lining covering internal organs) and ‘asbestosis’. Such is its toxicity as a human carcinogen that 55 nations have banned its mining and usage entirely. India, however, continues to use it in various sectors despite its proven threat.
The gamut of emotions and issues involved in the use of asbestos in India was played out recently in Andhra Pradesh, where a proposal to allot a factory site to Pune-based Sahyadri Ltd in Narasimharaopalem village of Krishna district to set up an asbestos sheet and accessories manufacturing unit led to a massive public outcry. The extent of disapproval was seen during an environmental public hearing on April 21. The proposed plant, with a capacity of 1.8 lakh tonne per annum, is opposed by environmentalists and occupational health hazard researchers, Ban Asbestos Network of India, Jana Vignana Vedika, Human Rights Forum and Rythu Coolie Sangham. With big players like Ramco Industries, Bhagyanagar Woodplast, Hyderabad Industries and Visakha Industries, Andhra Pradesh is considered the asbestos capital of the country. Both Hyderabad Industries and Visakha Industries are owned by G. Vivek, Congress MP from Peddapalli constituency. Hyderabad Industries (Kondapalli) and Visakha Industries (Jujjuru) are both located in Krishna district. If allowed, the Sahyadri asbestos plant would be the third in the district.
India has been phasing out mining of asbestos since 1986. The central government has stopped granting new asbestos mining leases or renewing old ones. But official estimates state that seven mines are operational in the country. It is still mined in some parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. In Andhra, asbestos is mined in the Saraswati-Brahmanpalli mines in Kadapa district by a company owned by Y.S. Prakash Reddy, a cousin of the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
About 90 per cent of the asbestos used in Indian factories is of the chrysotile (white asbestos) variety. There are two other forms: amosite (brown asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). The fine fibres of asbestos lodge themselves in the lungs and trigger off cancer. There are also pointers that it causes laryngeal, ovarian and gastro-intestinal cancers. “Since the latency period of the disease is long, say 15 years, and there is no system to capture the effects of occupational hazards in India, asbestos companies manage to fool people,” says Madhumita Dutta, an expert in the Occupational and Environmental Health Network of India.
An “act of corporate crime amounting to culpable homicide”—that’s how Gopal Krishna, convenor of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, describes the proposed asbestos unit in Narasimharaopalem. “When the scientific and medical evidence against asbestos is so clear, industries are knowingly subjecting workers, consumers and communities around the factories to these carcinogenic fibres,” he adds.
P. Amar, the Krishna district convenor of the Human Rights Forum, says the proposed factory would definitely harm villagers. Calling the environment impact assessment report pure hogwash, Amar says it is the practice of firms to make sweeping statements in such reports. “The company’s assertion that land values and economic benefits will flow from this new asbestos factory is simply absurd. Will an independent medical audit of the effects on their longest-employed workers be allowed? What has the company planned to assure protection of workers (and end users) using their products in construction?”
But the asbestos industry is breezily dismissive of this entire body of concerns, even in the teeth of scientific proof. G. Vivek, MP and MD of Visakha Industries, says all this talk of cancer is “a western concept”.