Asbestos cement sheets are not just durable, they’re cheap—as little as $7 a sheet, and less than half the price of roofing made with galvanized steel or tin, with at least twice the lifespan. So, increasingly, asbestos is the material of choice for low-cost construction, and it has become a cornerstone of the numerous building upgrades in rural areas. “Asbestos is in every school and every train station and every hospital in this country,” says Gopal Krishna, India co-ordinator of the international Ban Asbestos Network.
But Nicodemus says there is no risk: “Governments do their own studies, and they are satisfied that there is no problem—there is no problem under pollution controls,” he says. He adds cheerfully, “I am living proof to this: I worked for 40 years with factories. I am an educated person—if I had sensed any problem, I would have left the industry a long time back and gone somewhere else.”
The industry has a showpiece asbestos factory in the south, Hyderabad Industries Ltd.; this is where the industry association likes to take journalists. There, automatic bag-opening equipment keeps sacks of asbestos in a pressure-controlled area away from workers, and an automated process mixes dry asbestos into slurry, so that the fibres do not become airborne. Contaminant levels in the air are monitored routinely and are well below the Indian government limits (although these are 10 times higher than those in the U.S.).
But the Ahmedabad workers tell a different story—that a “dry process” is still used routinely in their factory, that bags split open all the time, that the men leave the factory coated in white dust. The manager of the factory, D.K. Dutta, and the director of personnel, S.G. Shekawat, refused to allow a visit to the facility to investigate the workers’ allegations, or to answer any questions, in person, by phone or e-mail. In 2010 and 2011, the company was repeatedly cited, and nearly shut down by the pollution control authorities, for using the dry process.
Nicodemus insists in one breath that the dry process is not used anywhere in India any more and then admits in another that his association has no way to prove that. “As far as the Asbestos Cement Products Manufacturers Association is concerned, we have tried our best to identify even small-scale producers so that we can educate them. Governmental regulations are there…and if people are not following, if enforcement is not there, what can we do? We tried our best to bring them [to follow the standards] I do not know—they are not interested.”
Yet while the cement industry gets—and dodges—the scrutiny, its workers are only part of India’s asbestos exposure story. “The primary exposure is not factory workers; it’s the construction workers, the masons, the plumbers, the electricians, who cut through pipes and sheets and tiles all day—this is where maximum exposure happens,” says Tushar Kant Joshi, a doctor who is director of the independent Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health in New Delhi. The World Health Organization says that the greatest exposure to asbestos fibre happens when sheets and roofing are cut with abrasive tools; the only way to reduce the risk is to do the cutting under water.
Joshi says that rarely ever happens. India has four different laws covering occupational safety—but they apply only to organized, “formal-sector” workers, who are, at most, 10% of the workforce. The great bulk of work in the country’s roaring construction industry is done by day labourers, picked up from vast labour markets in the early morning and paid a dollar or two for a day of work on the high-rise towers of Mumbai and the new shopping malls of Delhi. The occupational safety laws lay out minimum requirements for ventilation, safety equipment, air quality and medical monitoring of workers. But, in practice, none of this ever happens, Joshi says, both because of lack of will and because the Ministry of Labour department tasked with the job has scant resources. Asbestos-related lung cancer is not a reportable illness here; neither, outside mining, is mesothelioma. So there are no statistics on whether they are increasing; and there are no independent epidemiological studies on affected populations in India. Asbestos products are sold without hazard warnings; there is no monitoring of what happens to asbestos sheets or pipes once they leave the point of sale. “They don’t even monitor the organized sector, forget unorganized,” says Joshi. The worker in a factory gets a mask, and ventilation—the person drilling a hole gets nothing.”