Activist Gopal Krishna exposes India's doublespeak in environment protection

Activist Gopal Krishna exposes India

Last week, Livelaw carried Part I of the interview with Gopal Krishna, environmental activist and scholar on his inspirations, and ongoing concerns. In Part II, he answers specific questions concerning his activism, and interactions with the Central Government, with regard to his campaigns against asbestos and ship-breaking industries. 

Q: After five years of struggle, Bihar Pollution Control Board has cancelled permission to all the seven asbestos plants including the ones in Bhojpur. Please tell us about the salient aspects of this struggle, and how you succeeded in your campaign in Bihar. 

A: The struggle in Bihar is part of the national and global struggle against trade, manufacture and use of killer fibres of asbestos. Initially, when they bought the land they did not disclose that it was for asbestos-based factories. After more than five years of villagers' struggle, the West Bengal- based Balmukund company in Chainpur-Bishunpur, Marwan block in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar was closed. It had approval for three lakh ton per annum capacity.

Bitter resistance against the proposal of West Bengal-based Utkal Asbestos Limited (UAL) at Chaksultan Rampur Rajdhari near Panapur in Kanhauli Dhanraj Panchayat in Goraul block in Vaishali made the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar intervene after a delegation of leaders from Left parties and anti-asbestos activists met him in this regard.

I worked with Khet Bachao Jeevan Bachao Jan Sangarsh Committee of Muzaffarpur and Vaishali to resist the setting up of such hazardous plants and represented it in negotiations. Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) cancelled the No Objection Certificate given to the UAL company. It had approval for 2.5 lakh ton per annum capacity.

Villagers outwitted the corporate media which has been reluctant to publish anti-asbestos stories by wall writing in the villages adjoining the plant demanding halting of the construction of the plant.

While the successful protests were underway in Muzaffarpur and Vaishali three asbestos plants got set up in Bhojpur district. The Bhojpur media was not reporting on the anti-asbestos struggle in other districts.

In Bhojpur's Giddha village in Koilwar block, the 100,000 MT Capacity Asbestos Fibre Cement Corrugated Sheet, Flat Sheet, Accessories and Light Weight Fly Ash Block Plant acquired 15 acres. The plant site is located adjacent to Ara-Koilwar road. Due to our incessant efforts along with Parwaywarn Bachao Jeewan Bachao Sangharsh Samiti and Parywawarn Swasthya Suraksha Samiti pointing out non-compliance with environmental laws, BSPCB has revoked its emission-consent order and discharge consent order which were valid till 31st March, 2018.

The Chairman of the BSPCB has ordered the company in question, Tamil Nadu-based Nibhi Industries Pvt Ltd. to close its industrial unit with immediate effect, failing which it warned that complaints would be filed under section 44 of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 and 37 of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

This land allotment was considered to be part of the scam that led to an inquiry into allotments by Bihar Industrial Area Development Authority (BIADA).

A 120,000 MT/Annum capacity Asbestos Cement Sheet Plant and a 200,000 MT/Annum capacity Asbestos Grinding Plant was set up in Bihiya block of Bhojpur by Tamil Nadu-based Ramco Industries Ltd. It is noteworthy that only 120,000 MT/Annum capacity Asbestos Cement Sheet Plant had the clearance from the BSPCB.

The second unit with bigger capacity functions without any clearance. The project was allotted 20 acres by the state government on lease for 90 years. This patch of land too had found its mention in the BIADA land scam. The villagers complained against the hazardous factories in their proximity that manufacture chrysotile white asbestos-cement products. The hazardous asbestos waste has been dumped indiscriminately in the adjoining villages and the agricultural fields.

One worker died of asbestos-related disease in the Ramco factory. The company has given a compensation of Rs 5,000 mentioning his status as a cook and not as a worker.

The struggle led to stoppage of proposed asbestos-based plant of 1.25 lakh tons per annum (TPA) capacity in Pandaul, Sagarpur, Hati tehsil in Madhubani. The proposal of 2.5 lakh TPA capacity plant by Hyderabad Industries Ltd in Kumar Bagh, Bettiah, West Champaran has also been stopped. The company has constructed a boundary wall amidst rich agricultural field and faces court cases from villagers.

Our struggle was confronted with false cases in courts, police action and hooliganism by anti-social elements.

The asbestos-based companies are not maintaining the health record of every worker, not conducting Membrane Filter test to detect asbestos fibre and not covering every worker with a health insurance. They do not have qualified occupational health doctors to undertake these tasks. These companies should be asked to provide a list of workers employed in the factory, their health records and the qualification of the doctor assigned to undertake their health checkup.

Not only in Bihar, villagers protested against the proposed hazardous asbestos cement roofing factory at Naagaon-Lebidi villages, Sohella block, Bargarh district, Odisha and succeeded in stopping it. The company M/s Viswakarma Roofings Ltd. intended to establish 150,000 tonnes per annum of asbestos cement sheets manufacturing project. In Sambalpur’s Parmanpur village in Odisha too villagers are agitating against the hazardous asbestos-based factory of Visaka Asbestos Industries. I have been associated with these struggles.

More than 50 countries have banned production, use, manufacture and trade of the hazardous mineral fibre, asbestos. All the 27 countries of European Union have banned it. There is a logical compulsion based on scientific and medical evidence including resolutions of WHO and ILO to ban asbestos of all kinds including white asbestos to save life and health of Indians.

In India, asbestos-mining is technically banned and trade in asbestos waste (dust and fibres) is also banned but the process of banning trade, manufacturing and use of white asbestos is held up because of the corporate influence of the asbestos companies over ruling parties. The promotion of asbestos continues despite the fact that alternatives to asbestos exist.

There appears to be a deeper connection between asbestos-producing companies from countries like Russia and the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association (ACPMA) which seems to be overwhelming decision making by the central government despite its own official wisdom.

The Union Environment Ministry’s Vision Statement on Environment and Human Health reads, "Alternatives to asbestos may be used to the extent possible and use of asbestos may be phased out", but the Experts Appraisal Committee of this very ministry continues to give environmental clearance to such hazardous industries.

This is notwithstanding the fact that "The Government of India is considering the ban on use of chrysotile asbestos in India to protect workers and the general population against primary and secondary exposure," as announced in a concept paper by the Ministry of Labour in September 2011. Both these documents are available on government’s website but the struggle to make Indians safe from deadly exposure of asbestos fibres continues in the face of misinformation campaign of the killer industry.

Amidst the ongoing struggle, the Union Budget 2011-12 made an implied critical reference to asbestos by including it under Health Ministry’s Rashtriya Swasthya Birna Yojana to cover the 'unorganised sector workers in hazardous mining and associated industries like asbestos etc’.

But the current central government’s apathy towards victims of primary and secondary exposure to asbestos shows that in the conflict between naked lust for profit and public health, it is choosing to be complicit with the former. The legacy of callousness towards victims of asbestos-related diseases refuses to learn lessons from the epidemic of such diseases world over due to past usage of asbestos. Asbestos-related diseases have a long incubation period ranging from 5-25 years.

Now that Bihar is all set to be free of asbestos-based factories, one is hopeful that health being a State subject, Bihar will take the lead by banning asbestos procurement and use in the state to pave the way for other state governments and the central government to follow. Responding to anti-asbestos struggle, the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar has claimed that he would puncture this industry, but the task of decontaminating asbestos-laden factory sites, buildings, preparing a register of victims of asbestos-related diseases, creating an inventory of asbestos-based products and announcing a compensation fund for victims remains to be undertaken.

I am pursuing a case in NHRC since 2011 seeking closure of asbestos factories in India. All the states and concerned central ministries besides the ACPMA have filed their replies. The case is at a final stage.

Visaka Industries, a member of ACPMA, filed a civil and criminal defamation case against Google for an article I wrote on the Google blog about the company’s asbestos plant in Raibareli, Uttar Pradesh. The case is pending in the Supreme Court. As a consequence of this case, Google has taken my site www.asbestosfreeindia.org off public view.

Q: You have also been interacting with the Central Government ministries dealing with ship-breaking. Is the current Government more concerned and responsive than its predecessors, to your representations?

A: Shipbreakers are puppets in the hands of global ship owners from Europe, USA and Japan. These foreign shipowners have colonised Alang Beach (Gujarat) and are now eyeing Mundra. They are transferring their hazardous waste. Our Government is allowing it because it believes in free trade in hazardous waste as well.

The real culprit is the Union ministry of commerce & industry. The shipping and environment ministries are the weakest ministries. The gullibility of shipping ministry is liked by foreign ship owners.

Without media noticing it, the subject of ship-breaking industry has been transferred from steel ministry, and entrusted with the shipping ministry, after the NDA Government came to power. It may be noted that Steel Ministry has been the focal point for the ship-breaking activity.

The proposal of shifting ship-breaking to shipping ministry was inserted as part of Draft Ship-breaking Code which was created by Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) (set up by SC order of October 14, 2003 in hazardous waste case) hosted by Steel Ministry. I had met E K Bharat Bhushan, the Additional Secretary, Steel Ministry who headed the Committee, at his invitation. I tried to persuade him to stop the shifting of the subject to Shipping Ministry but he said it has already been decided by the PMO.

The Ship-breaking Code 2013 which has come into force in compliance with the Supreme Court’s order of 6th September, 2007 states at clause 8.3.6 that “In the event of any question arising out of the interpretation of any of the clauses of the regulations, the decision of the Ministry of Shipping shall be final.”

It is noteworthy that prior to the notification of the Code in the Gazette on 7th March, 2013, the subject matter of ship-breaking was with the Union Ministry of Steel as per the list of subjects allocated to the Ministry of Steel, under the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 given the fact that the ship-breaking is admittedly an exercise in secondary steel production.

An affidavit was filed in the Supreme Court on July 16, 2012 by Sugandh Shripad Gadkar, Deputy Director General (Technical), Directorate General of Shipping, Mumbai wherein he stated that the Union Ministry of Shipping “does not come in picture” in the matter of ship-breaking.

The affidavit was filed in the Writ Petition (Civil) No.657 of 1995. It is in this very petition that the Court gave the direction for creation of a Ship-breaking Code. The core question is if the Ministry of Shipping “does not come in picture” till July 16, 2012, which internal and external forces have brought it in the picture now.

I have demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the circumstances which led to this decision in a letter dated January 26, 2016 sent to Dr Ashwani Kumar, Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests because issues of ship-breaking are also linked to issues of maritime and national security as has been recorded repeatedly in the minutes of the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on Ship-breaking.

Unlike the Government of USA which has maintained a long-standing policy that requires its own end-of-life ships to be disposed of and treated domestically and off their beaches, Government of India has been offering its ecologically-cherished and biodiversity-rich beaches for end-of-life ships to rich countries.

The IMC on Ship-breaking under Steel Ministry which had rich experience since its creation in 2004 in compliance with the order of Supreme Court dated October 14, 2003, has been replaced with Ship Breaking Scrap Committee, Ministry of Shipping, without intimating the Court about it. The Code has ignored several recommendations for remedial measures.

For the record, the Hong Kong Convention, 2009 was adopted for safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships. But it is an attempt to write the obituary of hard- won Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement on Hazardous Wastes, which has been in force since 1992. (The Basel Convention , is an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movements of hazardous waste between nations, and specifically to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to Less Developed Countries).

The foreign countries like the USA and Japan have remained consistent enemies of Basel Convention. But sadly even European countries are taking a regressive path now. These foreign countries cherish their own sea beaches and have managed to get license to poison Alang beach, a biodiversity hot spot for ever.

There is a compelling logic for India to strictly adhere to Basel Convention that covers issues from recycling and disposal to final disposition. The text of the Hong Kong Convention stops at the gate of the ship recycling yard. It means that the most hazardous substances such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) and asbestos, once removed from the ship is not to be covered by this text.

In effect, this constitutes weakening of existing international legal regulations against exploitation of migrant workers and the coastal environment by the global shipping industry at the end of the life of a ship.

Most harmful hazardous materials from the dead ships will enter Indian territories via a recycling yard. It is an escape route from the Basel Convention. If they succeed it will burden present and future generations with a toxic legacy.

The text of Hong Kong Convention fails to ensure the fundamental principle of “Prior Informed Consent”. In this Convention ‘reporting’ takes place only after the hazardous waste ship arrives in the importing co ntry’s territory that a competent authority has the right to object and the objection allowed is not to the importation but to the ship recycling plan or ship recycling facility permit.

Thus, India is being forced to receive toxic waste in the form of ships which can become abandoned and for which their importation cannot be remedied by any right of return.

International shipping industry is so powerful an industry that it succeeded in getting the subject of ship-breaking transferred from Ministry of Steel to more amenable Ministry of Shipping to do their bidding by ratifying the text of the Hong Kong Convention. It is a regressive step with respect to international governance, protection of human rights and the environment.

Keeping gnawing concerns about the impact on the environmental health of the hazardous industrial activity in question makes ship breaking in India fall under a WIMBY (Welcome Into My Backyard) logic wherein waste is welcomed or a conducive climate is created for the application of Lawrence Summers' Principle: it makes impeccable economic logic to transfer hazardous industries to developing countries.

If Central Government is concerned about the supreme national interest, it should refuse permission for the proposed ship breaking facility. India can send a categorical message to the foreign ship owning countries that they should keep their own waste and ‘recycle’ them ad infinitum instead of treating Indian waters as their landfills. The

hazardous waste trade and dumping of old ships in myriad disguises in Indian waters is exposing vulnerability of India’s maritime and environmental security. This has been acknowledged by Naval Intelligence and other related agencies in the past but it seems political patronage has led to inaction in this regard.