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Poisoning the system

At a recent UN convention on chemicals, India refused to ban trade in two toxic substances. Is the government colluding with industry? Madhumita Dutta examines...

india Updated: Nov 20, 2008 22:36 IST

Over 40 countries have banned it, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, International Labour Organisation, Collegium Ramazzini have certified it as a human carcinogen, but India says ‘we do not have enough evidence, we need more science to conclusively prove that chrysotile asbestos causes cancer or diseases among workers in India’. This was India’s official position at the UN Convention on Chemicals in Rome last month.

The convention in question is the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, which through consensus enlists chemicals that require exchange of information on health hazards prior to trade, known as the Prior Informed Consent List (PIC list). This means that an exporting country has to notify the importing country about any domestic regulatory actions based on public health concerns, and possible health and environmental impacts of the chemical prior to trade, which would enable the importing country to make an informed decision before importation.

India and a few other countries blocked the listing of chrysotile asbestos, a fibrous mineral used in making roofs and pipes (commonly referred to as the ‘poor man’s construction material’) and endosulphan, a crop pesticide whose toxic effect has crippled villagers in Kerala’s Kasaragod district. Hiding behind the smokescreen of discredited science and specious technical arguments, India put a spanner in the works at the 4th Conference of Parties of the Convention (COP 4) attended by 126 nations that had ratified the convention.

In the case of chrysotile asbestos, India said it won’t take a decision until a health study on the impact of this substance announces its findings. The study is being done by the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH). However, what India failed to inform the international community was that the study was funded in part by the asbestos industry whose representatives provide ‘study samples’, ‘scientific studies’ and ‘comments’, and have access to all the findings of the study even while it’s on. Still worse, the study is kept under wraps and is not accessible to public health specialists or labour groups.

The endosulphan story was not any different. The Indian government ‘expert’ claimed that Indians face lesser risk due to smaller half-life of endosulphan in tropical climate, the expert lied to the convention participants when he said that an earlier study by NIOH in Kasaragod did not show any health impact. A lie that was nailed by public interest groups when they distributed copies of the same study from the journal Environmental Health Perspective. In fact, the study prompted the Kerala government to set up a relief cell for endosulphan victims.

We evidently wanted to protect the Rs 3,000 crore asbestos lobby and to shield plants that manufacture endosulphan. In doing so, India succeeded in derailing the consensus of a vast majority of parties, mostly developing nations who had emphasised the need for scientific data to help them make an informed decision. More importantly, the shenanigans in Rome demonstrated that science was a mere fig leaf to cover the nexus between a colluding government and an avaricious industry.

Madhumita Dutta is a Member of the Corporate Accountability Desk, The Other Media, Chennai.