The Asbestos Industry in India
European Legacy, Indian Continuity
In 1934, the British asbestos company, Turner and Newall Ltd, set up India’s first asbestos-cement product factory, in Kymore, Madhya Pradesh, in conjunction with the Indian limestone cement company, ACC Ltd. Today, under the ownership of an Indian family, the factory still produces asbestos-cement products and whilst the number of workers has dwindled considerably, their protection against the known long-term risks of exposure to chrysotile asbestos has scarcely improved. Why, when the health risks of asbestos exposure have been known since the 1930s and it has been banned in over 50 countries, including the EU, for nearly 20 years, does the industry still grow in India?
The answer is to be found in the discussionswithin and between the large asbestos-product corporations, which dominated the world asbestos trade for nearly 100 years. In the International Conference of Asbestos Information Bodies held on 24th and 25th November 1971 in London, the asbestos industry called for the industry’s intervention in the making of European regulation and it’s “active participation in publicity promoting the safe use of asbestos”. In other correspondence, the industry discussed whether safety warnings should be placed on asbestos products in order to avoid a risk of liability being imposed. In internal correspondence, within the US corporation Johns-Manville Corp on the 5th February 1974 on the subject of “Informing Foreign Customers about Asbestos and Health” (which included the Indian company, Shree Digvijay Cements Ltd), the memo, was very clear in its intentions, it stated:
“We should also like to have another meeting with you to discuss an appropriate label on asbestos shipped overseas. You will note that I did not say “warning label”. We should be able to devise a method of labelling which will inform users of the necessity for handling asbestos fibre properly without, at the same time, unnecessarily frightening the users or having our products classified as “hazardous”.
Most recently, in the English Court of Appeal judgment of Cape Intermediate Holdings Limited v Graham Dring (for and on behalf of the Asbestos Victims’ Support Group)  EWCA Civ 1795, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of releasing documents that revealed Cape PLC, a leading asbestos company, which also invested in India, were aware that even very low exposure to asbestos productsis sufficient to cause mesothelioma, back in the 1970’s. This is something which the old asbestos industry has consistently denied.
These and other documents revealed in disclosure during litigation and bankruptcy, indicates the modus operandi of an industry, which is willing to hide and manipulate the risks of exposure by any means; to intervene in ensuring the weakest possible regulatory and enforcement environment; and to preclude people from access to justice.
Fast-forward forty years and history repeats itself in the behaviour of Indian asbestos companies. The experience of working with workers in Indian asbestos factories is that they continue not to be told about the risks of exposure to asbestos, they are not told about the results of mandatory health screening under the Factories Act 1948 and are sacked when they become unwell, commonly known as the “healthy worker effect”. In April 2018, the organisers of a medical camp organised by asbestos workers at the Kolkata branch of Everest Industries Limited in which fifty percent of the current workers were diagnosed with asbestosis, was swiftly repressed by the factory. Two of the workers were suspended on twenty-five percent pay and the supporting workers were also victimised. In other factories across India workers and communities are not even aware of the health risks ensuing from even high-level exposure to asbestos. The new industry still does not want people to find out that asbestos is harmful.
The old and new asbestos industry continues to try and evade any responsibility for their harmful activities, whilst continuing to expose vulnerable people in poorer parts of the world. It is the sharp edge of criminal corporate behaviour which in India will undoubtedly leave a legacy of death and injury for decades to come.
This is the subject of “Breathless-Fighting the Global Asbestos Industry”, A victim from Belgium and India meet and hold hands. Both were exposed to asbestos by the same Belgium company, ETEX, but 20 years apart. In Belgium, the company transitioned from asbestos and off-loaded the human costs of its activities onto the Belgian state. In India, the company sold its shares, leaving the human cost of its activities with little ability for redressal. It’s a story that could be repeated in many industries and in many countries, but “Breathless” is a story of hope, not despair. The European asbestos industry was banned when through knowledge, regulation and litigation it could nolonger sustain the myth of safe use. Five years ago in Kymore, a woman showed a water storing vessel she had made out of the asbestos waste that surrounded her. She did not know that it was unsafe. Last month, the local state minister stood on a platform next to the asbestos factory and said that the factory should stop using asbestos. Things can change quickly and in India the asbestos industry does not fit with the image of a high-tech economy. However, its demise is not automatic and the need of the hour is education, publicity and campaigning.
“Breathless-Fight the Global Asbestos Industry”, is a powerful and important film which has already gained many plaudits. It will be used to inform about the risks of asbestos, to stimulate a discussion and a crowdfunding campaign. It will be subtitled in Hindi and Tamil and shown in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Coimbatore and Katni (MP). Dates to be advised. Ultimately, it will be victims and other affected people that will ultimately stop the continuity of such needless human suffering.
Doughty Street Chambers
8th August 2018.