A small network of activists and aggrieved workers across India argue that there is no such thing as safe use in a country where there is no tradition or practice of occupational safety, no enforcement of regulations, no monitoring of workers’ health—and such severe poverty that Swami went on showing up for work for years, long after he was winded by a half-block walk and had been diagnosed with asbestosis. He knew full well his job was killing him. “In Canada you have all these safety measures,” he says. “In my country they’ve left us to carry it and die.”
Near-identical working conditions are described by current and former employees of the cement factory (now called the Gujarat Composite Co.) and Gujarat Electric Co., operator of a giant power plant whose asbestos-sheathed towers loom over the city. The industries are two of the most common sources of exposure to asbestos here, but there are plenty of others, ranging from chemical production to auto parts manufacturing to ship breaking.
At the factory and power plant, the men have worked with sacks of asbestos displaying a maple leaf (although the workers recognized the Canadian symbol, they could not read the English words, including those that list the “safe” conditions for use of the product inside). None of the men has an education past the third-grade level. Their safety equipment consisted of, at most, cloth tied over their faces; often, they say, they shaped asbestos rope or smeared asbestos slurry on to boiler parts as insulation, with bare hands, their faces uncovered, the dust so thick in the air it was difficult to see.
Many of them began to have trouble breathing more than a decade ago, but they had no information that asbestos presented any risk to their health. “We used to make it into balls and throw them at each other when we were fooling around,” Ragunath Manwar says with bitter amusement.
Manwar worked at the electric company for 37 years, until he was fired in 2002 after asking the company why so many of his colleagues were dying. He says he only learned that he was working with asbestos in 1998 when a lawyer helping his union with a workers’ compensation case asked him to bring her a small chunk of this white powder he worked with. “That was the first I ever heard it was dangerous.”
Today Manwar, jovial, white-haired and apparently tireless—so far unaffected by the breathing troubles that afflict many of his former colleagues—runs a one-man accountability effort from a battered desk on the veranda of his small home, fighting the companies for compensation. But as he sees it, he has another opponent as well: his own government, which, he says, knows full well that asbestos is causing a massive incipient epidemic in India, but is so in the sway of industry that it dismisses the legitimacy of a tower of medical evidence and obstructs all efforts, domestic and international, to put a ban on its use.
When the connection between asbestos and lung disease became irrefutable and the First World market for asbestos began to collapse in the late 1970s, the industry went looking for greener fields. None has proved greener than India, where economic growth has averaged 9% a year of late and the construction industry is growing at breathtaking speed. And as the Canadian industry made clear as it began to target the developing world, a country such as India would pose no messy problems with occupational health: Daniel Perlstein, then president of the asbestos company Société Nationale de l’Amiante, was quoted in The Globe in 1982 explaining that the question of health did not appear to be a concern “in some countries where life expectancy is only 35...most people die by age 35 of other causes than old age or of a cancer that takes 35 to 40 years to grow.”
Companies such as Gujarat Composite combine cement with fly ash and asbestos (at about 9% of the mixture) to create a durable sheet; the asbestos acts as a binder that prevents brittleness. “Canadian fibres are among the best in the world—that is why most companies prefer Canadian fibres first,” says John Nicodemus, an executive director of the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association of India. He says that the asbestos cement industry produced 4.4 million tonnes of product last year (mostly roof sheets, but also some pipes); the industry has grown by about 14% year on year for the past decade and is currently worth about $1 billion annually. It uses about 90% of the asbestos imports to India.