One environmental lawyer has informed Dr. Devendra Kumar Shukla, Chairman, Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) about the Italian Court’s conviction of Swiss asbestos billionaire who has been sentenced to 12 years in jail and its relevance for Bihar's asbestos factory units in Bhojpur.
Stephan Schmidheiny, the Swiss billionaire has been sentenced on aggravated manslaughter charges connected to the deaths of hundreds of people due to asbestos exposure by an Italian court on 7 June, 2023. This verdict on the death of 392 people is relevant for Bihar because there are two asbestos based units of Chennai based Ramco Industries Limited in Bihiya, Bhojpur which have been found by BSPCB to be operating in violation of specific environmental laws. It has been violating Hon’ble Supreme Court’s verdict dated 27 January 1995 which paved the way for adoption of occupational health surveillance under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Guidance Manual-Asbestos Based Industries by the Union government. Besides these laws and the Court’s order, the company is in violation of the three Schedules under Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSHWC) Code 2020 which refer to hazardous asbestos mineral fiber and asbestosis, an incurable disease.
It may be recalled that BSPCB has a consistent position against these two units of Ramco company’s hazardous asbestos plants pursuant to which Vivek Kumar Singh, as Chairman, BSPCB cancelled the Non-Objection Certificates (NOCs) given to the hazardous enterprise of Ramco company under Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and Rules 3 (1), Schedule 1 of Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules under Environment (Protection) Act 1986. These Rules deal with hazardous wastes generated during the production of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials including asbestos-containing residues, discarded asbestos and dust/particulates from exhaust gas treatment.
Following the cancellation of NOCs, the company approached the Appellate Authority to appeal against the cancellation. At the time of their appeal the Appellate Authority happened to be Vivek Kumar Singh himself who as Chairman, Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSPCB) had cancelled their NOCs. The company used this apparent violation of the principle of natural justice as a ground to seek relief from the Patna High Court. It got the relief. Instead of confirming its order asking the State government to rectify the error by appointing a person as Appellate Authority in compliance with the principle of natural justice and unmindful of the fact that the fact of violation of environmental laws has not been disputed, the High Court allowed the company to operate its plant. But now that the Appellate Authority has been changed as per Court's directions and the error has been rectified and now the High Court has asked the Chairman, BSPCB to act after examining the complaint against it, the matter is before you.
BSPCB's legal action could not become effective because of the order of a single judge bench of Patna High Court on the limited ground of violation of natural justice. The order of Justice Jyoti Sharan dated 30 March, 2017 had directed the Chief Secretary, State of Bihar to rectify the error of Chairman of the BSPCB and the Appellate Authority being the same person.
It is a fact that the Court’s order did not dispute the finding of the Board with regard to violation of the environmental laws. It did not dispute that as asbestos and asbestos based industries are heavily polluting and have been categorised as R24 in the Red Category.
Subsequently, a Division Bench of the Hon'ble High Court comprising Justices Ajay Kumar Tripathi and Niku Agrawal passed another order modifying the previous order in the Bihar State Pollution Control Board & others Vs M/S Ramco Industries Ltd. on 30 April, 2018 (Letters Patent Appeal No.873 of 2017 In Civil Writ Jurisdiction Case No. 421 of 2017. The order authored by Justice Tripathi reads: "Since Mr. Vivek Kumar Singh no longer happens to be the Chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board, therefore, one of the reasons provided by the learned Single Judge for interfering with the order no longer holds good. It is left open to the new Chairman of Bihar State Pollution Control Board to pass a fresh order in accordance with law after hearing the parties." Source: https://indiankanoon.org/doc/
The Italian Court’s verdict is also relevant for Bihar because it has been estimated that one person dies from mesothelioma for every 170 tons of asbestos consumed. India is the biggest consumer of asbestos. It imported 3,61,164 tonnes of asbestos in 2019-20. The imports of asbestos were mainly from Russia (85%), Brazil , Kazakhstan, Hungary (3% each), and Poland and South Africa (2% each). Asbestos diseases have a very long incubation period. Therefore, if you are exposed today to asbestos fibre, you are likely to get the disease in the next 10-50 years. Asbestos is like a time bomb to the lungs and Indians will suffer the most. If it is banned today that does not mean people will not suffer. Because of past usage people will continue to suffer from these diseases. Although BSPCB has stopped all the asbestos plants except the Bihiya one, there is a need for it to recommend a ban on procurement of asbestos based products as well.
The manufacturers of asbestos based products in Bihar who are endangering the lives of all present and future generations of residents of Bihar await a fate similar to that of the Swiss billionaire. The verdict is relevant for Bihar because there is no public or private building in the State which is asbestos free including the BSPCB building, Patna Secretariat, courts’ premises, legislature and academic buildings. This verdict is germane to Bihar because human biology is the same everywhere if the asbestos is deemed hazardous and unusable in some 70 developed countries like Italy, it must be deemed so in Bihar. The legal action taken by the BSPCB against the asbestos based factories of Ramco Industries Limited is praiseworthy. As a follow up of BSPCB’s previous action in this regard, there is a need to address the public health crisis as a consequence of ongoing unscientific and illegal disposal of hazardous and carcinogenic asbestos waste. The violation of all the general and specific conditions laid down in the NOC given by the BSPCB and the environmental clearance given by the Experts Appraisal Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change by the company's factories in question is vrying for attention. These news broadcasts have captured the situation-1. Ramco Company: सरकार के साथ साथ दे रही जनता को धोखा, 2. रामको कंपनी ने बिहिया को बनाया डस्टबिन, 3.Asbestos के Sale व Use को Bihar में अब रोक दीजिए Nitish जी, नहीं तो बच्चे ऐसे ही सो जाते रहेंगे, and 4. Buying Asbestos is buying Cancer: Chairman, Bihar Legislative Council
The following methods in disposing of asbestos waste (dust and fibers) by the company in question has been noticed:
1. Using excavators the broken sheets are crushed and buried deep inside factory premises. The broken pieces pose a grave threat to the ground water shared by fertile agricultural land and villagers who use it for drinking purposes.
2. Since there is no space to bury the asbestos waste and broken asbestos products are sold to fictitious or known dealers on ex- factory basis to discard the company's responsibility for disposal. Normally, the destination of such disposal will be in remote locations and buried on fertile lands or used for land filling and covered by sand permanently. It seems to be a corporate crime but logical from the company's perspective as no one will pay 4 times the cost for transportation for a zero value material.
3. The broken ast based sheets are cut inside the factory into unmarketable sizes like 1 meter length and gifted as CSR activities. The cutting process emits a lot of asbestos dust and fibers harmful for the workers and villagers.
4. Broken asbestos sheets and wastes during transit handling or from customer end are brought to depot at various locations to harden top soil or land filling which again poses a threat to groundwater. Cutting broken bigger asbestos sheets also pose danger as asbestos fibers become airborne.
5. Wherever cement is handled in bags inside the factory it creates occupational hazard for workers due to asbestos dust particles. This is a threat to villagers as well because the air quality in the area gets polluted.
6. Ramco Industries Limited has been donating asbestos based roofs to the nearby Mahtin Mai temple and to the parking space of the District Magistrate's office as an exercise in ethical positioning of its brand and as a public relations exercise. The villagers, temple devotees and the district administration have been taken for a ride. They have acted in complete ignorance of the Board's action against Ramco's factories.
The stance of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who has declared in the State Assembly that Bihar Government will not allow construction of carcinogenic asbestos factories in the state on 1st July, 2019 is worthy of appreciation.
This announcement and the verdict by the Italian Court vindicates the anti-asbestos struggle by villagers of Muzaffarpur, Vaishali and Bhojpur.
BSPCB's action with regard to carcinogenic white chrysotile asbestos mineral fiber has been consistent with what is published on National Health Portal (NHP) , Centre for Health Informatics (CHI), National Institute of Health and Family Welfare (NIHFW), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Government of India. The National Health Portal states that “All forms of asbestos (chrysotile, crocidolite, amosite, tremolite, actinolite and anthophyllite) are in use because of their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack. Chemically, asbestos minerals are silicate compounds, meaning they contain atoms of silicon and oxygen in their molecular structure. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to asbestos (including chrysotile) causes cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings).” The asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), and plaques, thickening and effusion in the pleura.” It observes that “Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibers in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable asbestos materials.”
In such a backdrop, it is quite distressing that Ramco company's factories in Bihiya managed to get relief from Hon’ble Patna High Court on a grossly procedural ground of violation of natural justice. This procedural error ought to be rectified and the operation of the two units of an asbestos company must be stopped. Its operation is a case of environmental health lawlessness. It has violated every specific and general condition which has been stipulated in the environmental clearance and the No Objection Certificate. It may also be noted that when a worker died in this factory, his family was given a compensation of Rs 5, 000. The factory seemed to have the patronage of Bhojpur administration by donating asbestos roofs to it for its parking. This situation creates a compelling logic for medical investigation of the environmental health status of the village and temple communities living in the vicinity of these units and the workers of these two factories owned by the same company. The probe can reveal the extent of asbestos related diseases in this area because of environmental exposure.
The EIA Guidance Manual requires the asbestos factories like the ones operated by Ramco company to have the occupational health surveillance program to address pre- employment health examination and periodic health examination. Every employee on his/her appointment for a job with a possibility of exposure to airborne asbestos shall get the pre-employment medical examination done within stipulated days of his employment, by the employer. Scheme for health surveillance shall include exposure data at each pertinent work place, periodical examination of workers, X-ray examination for radiological changes, lung function test for restrictive disorder and clinical examination for early detection of signs of asbestosis. These tests are to be recorded for pre-employment, periodic surveillance and at cessation of employment as per the concerned state government regulations. The occupational health surveillance is to be carried out by occupational physician or chest physician trained in occupational medicine. The occupational health surveillance program is to be drawn for all the employees potentially exposed to asbestos dust and it is to be provided free of cost. The medical records are to be maintained and stored for period of 15 years following the termination of employment or for 40 years after first day of employment, whichever is later. The medical records is to be maintained covering the details of pre-employment examination, the periodical medical examinations, medical examination done at other times, if any and the medical examinations conducted at cessation of employment and further follow-up examinations, where done. The records shall also be maintained of the individual employee's occupational exposure profile to asbestos, specific work practices, and preventive measures prescribed. All asbestos based products have a life-span, it is natural that all asbestos based products are potential asbestos wastes. It may be noted that at present Indian railways is removing asbestos cement roofs from over 7, 000 railway stations and from railway platforms in Bihar like elsewhere. BSPCB ought to ensure that asbestos waste generated in the process is disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. There is a need for the BSPCB to create a Master Plan for decontaminating all asbestos laden government buildings including legislative and judicial buildings in Bihar and for probing the health status of the communities linked to the factory and who reside in proximity of the two units of asbestos factories in Bihiya. It is necessary to initiate preventive action in the face of tycoons, officials and ministers facing criminal charges and imprisonment for their act of knowingly subjecting unsuspecting people to killer fibers of asbestos in Europe. The future will be no different for the culprits in India.
It has been learnt that Prof. Arthur L. Frank, Professor of Public Health and Professor of Medicine, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA has written to the Chairman, BSPCB in this regard saying, "We hope that the technical judgement by the Courts can be rectified and swift action taken to stop its use, and to plan for future use of safer materials, which do exist, and for the cleanup of the current environmental pollution."
Dr. Barry Castleman, author of Medical and Legal Aspects of Asbestos, the most authoritative book on asbestos industry has also written to the Chairman, BSPCB regarding Ramco company's operation stating, "Surely the Board has the means to compel disclosure about the fate of the plant's voluminous wastes.These wastes are a design feature of asbestos cement plants, and their fate should be disclosed to the public environmental authorities. Appropriate regulation can then be imposed." This state of sad affairs is crying for BSPCB's attention.
The environmental lawyer has urged the BSPCB to take remedial measures by setting matters right by restoring and reiterating it’s earlier order to safeguard public health and ensure environmental justice. There is a logical compulsion for the BSPCB to do so.