"The Toxic Trade": The Legal Landscape of Asbestos Regulation in India

Article excerpt

A staggering 90% of India's asbestos imports come from Canada. Jain and Gupta explore India's legal framework in granting workers a 'right to health.'

For those unfamiliar with the pervasive use of asbestos in construction in India or of the fact that 90% of it is imported from Canada, the Australian Broadcast Company's Foreign Correspondent episode "India: the Toxic Trade" (aired on November 8, 201 1) provides an effective and accessible introduction to the troubling issue. Journalist Matt Peacock takes us from an abandoned mine in the state of Jharkhand, India to the ubiquitous wavy corrugated cement sheets seen in urban areas (which provide the "poor man's roof," according to Indian industry) and finally to the willfully blind companies who deal in it and the nation's leaders who allow this trade.

In the context of India's massive import and use of asbestos, Peacock places the responsibility and blame for this 'Toxic Trade" primarily on two actors - Indian companies and the Canadian government. We don't dispute their complicity in perpetuating the massive health violations taking place in India due to the use of asbestos. However, while the program focuses on the actions of these two responsible actors, it does not address the legal landscape of asbestos regulation in India (including how its use is situated with the right to health and occupational safety standards), efforts to outlaw it, or the responsibility of other actors in curbing its use. We argue that in light of the many health problems associated with asbestos, and the difficulty of achieving effective health and safety regulation, it is imperative that the Indian government ban the use of asbestos in India and that other actors support this ban through export regulation, promotion of alternative construction materials, and other measures discussed below.

Framing the Problem and the Blame

The term "asbestos" refers to a group of fluffy innocuous-looking minerals, which have been mined and used in construction materials and insulation for centuries. Though its toxicity had been suspected at least since the early 1900s, its use was not restricted in many places until much later in the 20th century. The health effects of exposure to asbestos are not immediate but slow, prolonged and lifetaking. Its small fibers find their way into lungs and blood streams and cause mesothelioma, various forms of cancer (larynx, ovarian, and others), and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Worldwide, it is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) that asbestos causes approximately half of all deaths caused by occupational cancer. As such, its use has been restricted in Canada and banned in least 50 other countries.

"Toxic Trade" has ample footage of this fluff and dust in the mountains in Jharkhand, India near an abandoned mine, in urban factories, and sadly, on cement factory workers' hair, clothing and bodies. Exposure to asbestos for these workers translates into health problems for not only them, but in at least one case discussed in the program, for the women who live with them and wash their clothing. This in turn affects entire families' lives and livelihoods as workers fall sick and are unable to earn for their families. In one family interviewed in the program, a male factory worker knew that continuing work in the factory would shorten his life to just a few more years, and yet continued to work there because his family needed the income.

Though Peacock doesn't directly say it, it seems he attributes the problem of continued use (and abuse) of asbestos to greed - of both apparently clueless Indian companies out for profit and the Canadian government, for allowing asbestos to be mined domestically and exported to India. He interviews Abhaya Shanker, the head of Hyderabad Industry, India's largest asbestos cement manufacturer and customer of Canadian asbestos, who argues entirely unconvincingly that this particular kind of asbestos has not been found to cause cancer and that in any case, his company takes ample safety precautions. …