Asbestos pollution may be a waning issue in Europe and the US but it still remains a big problem in India. Richer nations like the UK and Germany banned asbestos decades ago after it was discovered that it leads to a condition called asbestosis which was first identified in 1906. Asbestos consists of six natural fibers about 1,200 times smaller than a strand of human hair that can be woven like fabric. The material is resistant to fire, heat and chemicals and is therefore well-suited to construction and auto industries.
It has been used for the last 140 years in construction and national bans were first enacted in the 1970s after harmful effects were noticed. When asbestos fibers are inhaled, they bruise the lung tissue. This leaves scars that accumulate and cripple the organ’s ability to process oxygen. This damage can also lead to the development of lung cancers, shortness of breath and chest pains. There is no minimum safe level for asbestos exposure and sometimes it can take up to 20 years for symptoms to manifest.
Supply and Demand
According the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database, India is the largest importer of asbestos. Most of it goes into making corrugated roofing sheets that sell for as little as $7. More than 100,000 people are employed by companies producing the material, according to the Asbestos Cement Producers Association, an industry lobby group.
Canada was India’s second-largest overseas supplier of asbestos in 2009, trailing Russia, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics database. According to Bloomberg, the Quebec government approved a $60 million loan guarantee to a group of Canadian and Indian investors, enabling them to expand production at the last remaining asbestos mines. It produces 250,000 metric tons annually, of which 40% may end up in India and sales will generate $130 million in revenue.
Poor Working Conditions
There are many companies actively involved in using asbestos to make roofing materials. The working conditions in such factories are dismal with workers not even being provided with a face mask for protection. Often factory floors are poorly ventilated with bad air circulation. Workers are provided with regular health checkups or compensation for medical issues related with asbestos exposure. Some of the migrant workers that work in these factories are so poor that they are even willing to risk their health in pursuit of temporary gain that companies are only too willing to take advantage of.
Workers are supposed to receive compensation for asbestosis but only some of them do. Due to the nature of the Indian judicial system as well as strong-arm tactics of Indian companies, compensations are often delayed or never received. Indian companies that use asbestos, including Everest, Gujarat Composites, Visaka Industries Ltd. and Hyderabad Industries Ltd. don’t face the same kinds of disability claims that pushed Turner & Newall into insolvency. Tuner & Newall is a Manchester-based company that filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because they had to face a pay-out of $9.4 billion in death and injury claims triggered by asbestos-related conditions.
Goes Beyond CSR
The government of India must of course take a serious hand in this as the issues goes beyond merely CSR. Further subsidization of asbestos must be stopped and stringent guidelines must be hammered out for those companies still continuing in the trade. Immediate measures to protect workers from dismal working conditions should be taken not just by companies but also the government. Additionally, alternative roofing materials must be encouraged in order to bring this tragedy to an end.