India tweak norms to boost asbestos production; 70 countries ban it

Asbestos or Fibre Cement Based Products (Quality Control) Order 2024 has been issued to curb import of ‘sub-standard’ goods made of asbestos & boost their domestic manufacturing: DPIIT

Asbestos in India

New Delhi: At a time when the United States is taking steps to ban all types of asbestos, Indian government has decided to encourage production and usage of asbestos or fibre cement based products in the country, ignoring health hazards associated with the industry.

Manufacturing, trade and use of asbestos have been banned in around 70 countries across the world including United Kingdom, Japan, Ukraine and Italy. Countries like Argentina, Australia, Bahrain , Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Spain, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Finland, The Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Norway, Monaco, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, South Korea and Kuwait have also put stop to use and manufacturing of asbestos or fibre cement based products.

In March this year, the department for promotion of industry and internal trade (DPIIT) has notified the Asbestos or Fibre Cement Based Products (Quality Control) Order 2024 to allow local industrialists to manufacturer asbestos based products. Officials said that the order was issued to curb import of ‘sub-standard’ goods made of asbestos and boost their domestic manufacturing. “However, the manufacturers are needed to get their products pass through Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) mark for their trading and export,” clarified the official.

India world’s largest importer, consumer of asbestos

Mining of asbestos has been banned since 1993 owing the health hazards associated with it. However, there is no law in the country that prevents its use in construction, import, or trade. As a result, India happens to be a leading importer of asbestos and accounts for nearly 44% of total import in the world.

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The DPIIT notification stated that “it shall come into force on the expiry of six months from the date of publication of this notification in the official gazette. To safeguard the domestic small/micro industries and ensure smooth implementation of the QCO and ease of doing business, relaxations have been granted to small/micro industries as regards to timeliness. An additional nine months have been given to small industries and an additional 12 months to micro industries to meet the norms.”

Officials said that violation of the provision of the BIS Act can attract imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of at least ₹2 lakh for the first offence. They said that the department has mulled various initiatives to including the development of quality control protocols to sensitise the manufacturers and users for safe use of the products. “Mandatory QCOs will help curb the import of sub-standard products, prevent unfair trade practices and ensure the safety and well-being of consumers as well as the environment,” said an official.

Environmentalists’ worry

However, environmentalists are worried over the government’s bid to promote manufacturing of asbestos-based products, as it is a well established fact that fibres of asbestos can be easily and accidentally inhaled and remain embedded in the lungs once they reach there, which leads to many diseases, including lung cancer, scar in lung, etc.

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In a study carried out by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR- Mumbai) in 2019 on asbestos exposure, it was stated that India needed palliative care facility for nearly 6 million people suffering from asbestos-related disease and half a million people with cancer in the next four decades.

Notification valid only for imported asbestos?

Asbestos or Fibre Cement based Products (Quality Control) Order, 2024 applies only to foreign asbestos and specified foreign asbestos based products because the Indian government has banned mining of all kinds of carcinogenic asbestos mineral fibers. Union Government has informed Lok Sabha that “Considering the deleterious effect of asbestos on the health of the workers as it exposes them to various diseases, like silicosis, pneumoconiosis etc., Central Government decided on 09th July, 1986 not to permit the expansion of mines of asbestos. Accordingly, the state governments and UTs had been directed not to grant any new mining lease for asbestos in the country.

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Environmental lawyer Gopal Krishna said Asbestos or Fibre Cement based Products (Quality Control) Order, 2024 implies that foreign toxic asbestos is benign but Indian toxic asbestos is harmful to human health, unmindful of the fact that human biology is same everywhere and no substance become toxic or non-toxic depending on its country of origin.

Asbestos, a major health hazard

Krishna further said that India is the world’s largest asbestos importer and consumer. “The notification ignores the findings and recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Asbestos causes incurable diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer, pleural thickening and mesothelioma. These diseases have long latency periods, in the order of 10-50 years. Asbestosis is a slowly developing and progressive scarring of the lungs caused by the inhalation of high concentrations of asbestos dust and/or long exposure. The elasticity of the lungs is reduced and also their ability to exchange gases,” added Krishna.

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Asbestos is also considered a source of Mesothelioma or a malignant tumour of the pleura or peritoneum. “It is linked with exposure to all types of asbestos. As well as being an occupational hazard, it may develop in non-occupationally exposed people living in the same household as asbestos workers or in the vicinity of strong asbestos emission sources. WHO says, “Asbestos is a proven human carcinogen (IARC Group 1). No safe level can be proposed for asbestos because a threshold is not known to exist. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing lung disease….”

US bans use of all types asbestos

In March this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a ban on the only type of asbestos currently still used in the United States. The move comes decades after countries around the world as part of a concerted effort banned all types of asbestos, of which India is currently among the largest importers, due to its carcinogenic effects on the human body. Today, it is banned in construction in over 65 countries.

Asbestos manufactures were craving for domestic production

Asbestos Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association, a cartel of asbestos based companies which has referred to a “National Study on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Environment in Asbestos Cement Product Industries” covering 50 functional asbestos cement product industries of the country carried out by the Directorate General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institute (DGFASLI) under the Ministry of Labour and Employment. This study found that out of 2603 workers, 10 cases were suspected cases of asbestos related disorders. This study came under scrutiny of a paper entitled “Analysis of the Indian Government’s position on the use of asbestos and its health effects” published in Public Health Action (June 21, 2023) by Dr. R. Singh and Prof. A. L. Frank. The paper concludes that the DGFASLI “study has some potential limitations, including the possibility that disease latency could be a factor, as the presence of disease may only be revealed decades after exposure. Furthermore, there appears to be no record of external peer review by an organisation outside the one conducting the study.”

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Penal action for breach of Quality Control order 2024

Section 17 of the Asbestos or Fibre Cement based Products (Quality Control) Order, 2024 deals with “Prohibition to manufacture, sell, etc., certain goods without Standard Mark” which is compulsory under Section 16. Section 29 (3) provides for a penalty for contravention. It states that any person who contravenes the provisions of section 17 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend up to two years or with fine which shall not be less than ₹2 lakh for the first contravention and not be less than ₹5 lakh for the second and subsequent contraventions, but may extend up to ten times the value of goods or articles produced or sold or offered to be sold or affixed or applied with a Standard Mark, including Hallmark, or with both: Provided that where the value of goods or articles produced or sold or offered to be sold cannot be determined, it shall be presumed that one year’s production was in such contravention and the annual turnover in the previous financial year shall be taken as the value of goods or articles for such contravention. The offence shall be cognizable, which implies that a police officer may, in accordance with the classification of offences in the First Schedule of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 or under any other law for the time being in force, arrest without warrant.

Asbestos-based materials allowed for production

Asbestos or Fibre Cement based Products (Quality Control) Order, 2024 pertains to Asbestos or Fibre Cement based Products like corrugated and semi-corrugated asbestos cement sheets, asbestos cement pressure pipes and joints, flat sheets, building boards, pipes and fittings for sewerage and drainage, cement flat sheets, cable conduits and troughs, pressure pipes (light duty), shallow corrugated asbestos cement sheets, fibre cement flat sheets, fibre reinforced cement products–long corrugated or asymmetrical section sheets and fittings for roofing and cladding.

Legal impediments for asbestos manufacturers

Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI) has pointed out that in its submission before the National Green Tribunal, India’s Asbestos Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association refers to judgement of 1995 by the Supreme Court in Consumer Education Resource Centre v. Union of India but omits significant part of the directions with regard to International Labour Organisation (ILO) resolution concerning Asbestos and the compensation to the certified victims in order to mislead the National Green Tribunal. This dishonest and insincere approach of the asbestos companies and DGFASLI demonstrates “their pre-existing ideological commitment to support corporate interests over worker or community interests.”

The Supreme Court in Writ Petition (Civil) No.206 of 1986 had given the following directions on January 27, 1995. It reads: “All the industries are directed (1) To maintain and keep maintaining the health record of every worker up to a minimum period of 40 years from the beginning of the employment or 15 years after retirement or cessation of the employment whichever is later; (2) The Membrane Filter test, to detect asbestos fibre should be adopted by all the factories or establishments at par with the Metalliferrous Mines Regulations, 1961; and Vienna Convention and Rules issued thereunder; (3) All the factories whether covered by the Employees State Insurance Act or Workmen’s Compensation Act or otherwise are directed to compulsorily insure health coverage to every worker; (4) The Union and the State Governments are directed to review the standards of permissible exposure limit value of fibre/cc in tune with the international standards reducing the permissible content as prayed in the writ petition referred to at the beginning. The review shall be continued after every 10 yews and also as an when the I.L.O. gives directions in this behalf consistent with its recommendations or any Conventions; (5) The Union and all the State Governments are directed to consider inclusion of such of those small scale factory or factories or industries to protect health hazards of the worker engaged in the manufacture of asbestos or its ancillary produce;

The Supreme Court had further ordered that the appropriate inspector of factories in particular of the state of Gujarat, is directed to send all the workers, examined by the concerned ESI hospital, for re-examination by the National Institute of Occupational Health to detect whether all or any of them are suffering from asbestosis. In case of the positive Ending that all or any of them ant suffering from the occupational health hazards, each such worker shall be entitled to compensation in a sum of rupees one lakh payable by the concerned factory or industry or establishment within a period of three months from the date of certification by the National Institute of Occupational Health.”

Asbestos companies not complying with SC directions

The members of the India’s Asbestos Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association have not been complying with these directions of the Supreme Court. They are trying to mislead the Tribunal by withholding the full text of the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court which has recognised right to health as part of fundamental right to health.

Asbestos companies accused of misleading society

The word “Asbestos” has become so notorious that Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association has changed its name to hide the word “Asbestos”. Now it calls itself “Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association”! But in their naked lust for profit they will have present and future generations of Indians and residents in India including the foreign embassies and foreign visitors whose countries have banned all kinds of asbestos, that foreign asbestos is “safe”. Notably, the government of India has banned mining of all kinds of asbestos due to its harmful effect on human health. The Asbestos Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association will have media, legislatures and courts and residents of India believe that Indian asbestos is unsafe, hazardous, poisonous and harmful but asbestos from Russia, Brazil, Kazakhstan and China is safe, non-hazardous, non-poisonous and harm free.

BANI seeks complete ban on all types of asbestos

BANI’s work is dedicated to the implementation of the Court’s directions and the recommendations of ILO and WHO to prevent preventable diseases and preventable deaths by prevention of asbestos trade, manufacture and use. It demands revision of the provisions of the Factories Act, 1948 which declare manufacture, handling and processing of Asbestos and its products as Hazardous Process but do not impose ban on manufacture, handling and processing of asbestos and asbestos based products. It seeks amendment in the Schedule XIV, Section 87 of the Factories Act which deals Dangerous Operation of “Handling and Processing of Asbestos, Manufacture of any Article or Substance of Asbestos and any other Process of Manufacture or otherwise in which Asbestos is used in any Form’ to ensure that India supports listing of chrysotile asbestos under list of hazardous substances as per UN’s Rotterdam Convention.

BANI demands cancellation of all the environmental clearances and No Objection Certificates given to asbestos based factories and ban on all asbestos based products. It seeks legal and medical relief for the victims of incurable asbestos related diseases caused by primary and secondary exposure. It wants asbestos free schools and hospitals, asbestos free powder, asbestos free water supply pipes and asbestos free vehicles. It demands decontamination of all the public and private buildings including foreign embassies which are ridden with asbestos fibers. The decision making with regard to asbestos must be shifted from the commerce ministry, a promoter of trade in asbestos, to the health ministry, a regulator of health hazards. The latter must be empowered to ensure that it gives precedence to public health.

Asbestos plants not allowed to operate

BANI joined the protest of villagers in Bihar and Odisha against asbestos based factories. It led to stoppage of five factories in Bihar and one in Odisha. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar assured the state assembly on July 1, 2019 that such plants will not be allowed in the State. It is significant that despite the assurance two units of asbestos based factories of Chennai based Ramcoe Industries Ltd are operating in Bihiya, Bhojpur, Bihar with environmental clearance and NOC for one unit. It is noteworthy that it is admitted that Fibre Reinforced Cement Products Subcommittee for BIS standards includes asbestos companies like Ramco Industries Ltd, Hyderabad Industries Ltd, Eternit Everest Industries Ltd., Kalani Asbestos Cement Pvt Ltd. and Shri Digvijay Cement Co Ltd. in the affidavit filed by Asbestos “Fiber Cement Product Manufacturers Association” before the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal. “It is a classic case of culprits of environmental and public health crimes setting up norms and standards for their own regulation,” said Krishna.

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