Asbestos is banned in 70 countries which have deemed that this construction material is a “silent killer” since its fibres are carcinogenic.
According to the World Health Organization, all types of asbestos cause “lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis [fibrosis of the lungs]”. Exposure to the fibres and handling or inhaling them could also result in death.
In 2011, India banned asbestos mining and asbestos waste used in ships. But it continues to trade in raw asbestos and asbestos-based products, commonly found in the roofs of houses, especially in poorer regions of the country.
Aaron Cosbey, a development economist and head of Small World Sustainability, a consultancy, said that trade goes on because commercial interests have been prioritised over human welfare.
According to a November 2021 report by the Indian government, between 2019 and 2020, India imported 361,164 tonnes of asbestos, a 1 percent decrease compared with 364,105 tonnes in the previous year.
The report noted that almost the entire import was chrysotile asbestos, with 85 percent of these fibres coming from Russia. About 3 percent also came from Brazil, Kazakhstan and Hungary each, and 2 percent came from Poland and South Africa respectively.
India also exports asbestos. The Indian government’s November 2021 report noted that most of the exports went to Bangladesh, and 7 percent to Sri Lanka.
Gopal Krishna, an environmental lawyer and co-founder of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, explained:
“The trade continues because nobody in India has time to deal with health complaints when money is involved and there is a lewd relationship between the Indian government and the asbestos manufacturers in the country...The Indian government is aware of the harmful impacts of asbestos, but is heavily influenced by the profit-inducing capacity of the industry..." He added, “These business enterprises don’t operate on logic. They operate on profit.”