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(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)
(Louie Palu/Photographs by Louie Palu)

Canada's chronic asbestos problem Add to ...

The worker drilling holes in asbestos cement sheets goes home at the end of the day in dusty clothes, and his wife or children wash them. “When I would wash the clothes, the smell and the dust would make me gag,” says Savita Mehra, whose husband, Narrayanprasad, made asbestos into fibre ropes at Gujarat Electric Co. for 22 years. “I would say to him, “Look at this, at this dust—you must leave that job.’ But he would say, ‘How can I? How else will I get a permanent job?’” Today Savita, 67, is breathless; when the family can afford steroids, she can move slowly around their two-room house; when they can’t, she stays in bed. Her husband has been diagnosed with occupational asthma. No one has ever investigated Savita’s asbestos exposure. Her husband says he developed breathing trouble after about 10 years at the factory; he went to the factory doctor and was told he had tuberculosis. He took TB treatment for seven years. Today he receives a pension of 300 rupees, or $6, a month—about a fifth of what the family spends on medical care for their breathing problems.


Immediately outside the gates of the sprawling Gujarat Composite factory is a clump of about 300 small houses called Kali Gaon—Black Village—although the houses are mostly painted blue. Every roof is made of corrugated asbestos cement sheets, which are sold from vast stacks at the gate of the factory. “It is the most ideal roof for the Indian people,” enthuses Nicodemus.

But many of the sheets are broken; breakage releases fibres. Heat causes the sheets to break down—and every family cooks on wood or charcoal inside their low-slung houses. Broken pieces are taken home from the factory by workers who use them to make jerry-rigged fences.

Until recently, the factory also supplied water to workers from a well inside its walls. “You could see dust in the water, floating in it,” says C.R. Singh, who grew up in Kali Gaon and whose father still works in the factory. “I had no idea there was a risk—it’s just what people have done their whole life. Now I wonder what I drank for my first 25 years.”

His father, who has repeatedly been diagnosed with asbestosis, inventories bags of chrysotile in a storeroom. The elder Singh says the bags, which occasionally split on their own, are disgorged in the open instead of inside a sealed container, and that there has never been a way to vacuum the dust from his uniform before he leaves for home. All of these circumstances have been identified by the Canadian industry as unsafe. And if anyone has ever checked the particulate level in the factory, they’ve never shared the results with him. Nor the results of his infrequent health exams.

He was, however, given jaggery for years.

“The company was making a fool of these people,” says Ragunath Manwar. He hardly expects better of the employers. Canada is another story. “Doesn’t your government feel a moral responsibility that what they are doing is killing us?”

Whatever Canada’s government may feel, the Indian one apparently has no qualms: It has approved 10 new sites for asbestos cement factories to open next year. That’s no surprise, says Joshi, who—shades of Canada—describes a “close nexus of interests between the business and politicians.” There is, for example, an asbestos cement factory in the constituency of Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling All India National Congress. Another huge factory in Hyderabad is headed by Gaddam Vivekanand, a member of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. He continues to sit as vice-chairman on the company’s board of directors. The industry assiduously courts political favour, reminding politicians that it employs 100,000 people directly, and another 300,000 indirectly. A bill to ban asbestos pushed by activists has sat in the upper house of parliament for years. “The political will is not there. To ban it, to reduce consumption, to restrict use is a political decision,” says Joshi.

Manwar goes further than that. “It’s corruption: The industry buys out the labour department,” he says. No such complaint has been brought against the asbestos cement industry formally, but such practices, while common in India, are rarely investigated. The aging activist sits in the shadow of the cement factory, holding a tattered file of medical records from the men he once worked with, each one ending with a doctor’s scrawl of “asbestosis.”

“We have no power,” he says. “We have nothing.”

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