Introduction: Occupational Health and workers right are the collective indicator of a country’s development. A country with more than 81% informal sector workers, needs to fight hard to meet the terms and conditions while complying the norms. The working condition requires high standards and the regulations should be demanding, then only, those into business will treat the workers with respect and sincerity.

Under the United nation’s sustainable development goals, Goal 3.9 refers that by 2030 substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination, while Goal 8.8 talks about protecting labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment. In Goal 16.6 which discusses to develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels are bench marks that each committed country needs to follow. If India needs to achieve these goals it should start addressing its issue and make various arrangements that are practical and can be implemented for the benefits of underprivileged.

One such much needed amendment in the law would be addressing the issue of the usage of asbestos in the country. The working environment Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for asbestos is 0.1 fibre per cubic centimetre of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA), with an excursion limit (EL) of 1.0 asbestos fibres per cubic centimetre over a 30-minute period. The employer must ensure that no one is exposed above these limits.

But a lot of mining activity which were going on in 1980s which already have exposed a huge amount of population residing in the nearby by areas as the safety measures back then were not rigorous. These mines were abandoned long back after the government banned mining in the country but these mines were never scientifically closed and are still vulnerable to erosion, contaminating the areas as far as the wind/ water blows.

The Context: The Mines Department, Government of India, in the interest of health of workers, in 1986 restricted the expansion of existing mines, and imposed further restrictions on the mining of asbestos in 1993. However, the closure and reclamation of these abandoned mines has not been done scientifically yet.

According to the Indian Minerals Yearbook published by Indian Bureau of Mines under Ministry of Mining in October 2012, the production of asbestos stood at 258 tonnes in 2010-11 and increased by about 6 per cent as compared to previous year’s record production. Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan were major contributors.

Various unregulated mining practices across the country were identified and a case was filed in 2012 by Environics Trust with the Hon’ble National Green tribunal seeking directions for scientific restitution of the abandoned mining lease for asbestos.

The Judgement of NGT: On 14th August 2018, the principal bench of National Green Tribunal, chaired by Hon’ble Mr Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel asked four states (the respondents) —Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Karnataka in the following cases – Shri Kalyan Ban Singh & Ors. vs. HIL Ltd. & Ors.; Environics Trust vs. Union of India & Ors.; and Amar Singh vs. Union of India & Ors. — to comply with the judgement dealing with asbestos contamination.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the governments of Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to scientifically close all abandoned asbestos mines falling within their provinces. Prior to the final judgement, on 29.10.2015, the tribunal contemplated the issue of closing of the asbestos mines in a scientific manner and directed the four states to prepare a list of all abandoned asbestos mines and furnish such list to the Indian Bureau of Mines. The said States were directed to formulate a programme of inspection of each mine, which was reproduced in the final order too.

Abandoned Asbestos Mines fenced only with tweaks in Rajasthan

In the order, Justice Goel has asked the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to collect data from the respective mining departments and state pollution control boards regarding all the mines operating in these states, whether mines which were operational have ceased to operate and the measures taken to reclaim closed mines. The tribunal also asked for health survey along with the analysis of ambient air and water quality around these mining areas. Further, the bench has also asked the states to list the number of industries processing asbestos in these states. The bench has aforesaid that, it is undisputable that asbestos mining activity is hazardous and causes serious environmental and health hazards, including diseases such as cancer.

Specific Recommendations for Jharkhand

  • Adoption of suitable schemes for not disturbing the streams/river flowing nearby area.
  • Notifying the local people about the restrictions and precautions against exposure to Hazardous Asbestos dust through display board. The display board should be provided near the dump area showing the hazards associated with asbestos in local/ Hindi language with danger sign so that no person goes inadvertently to the dump site.
  • The dump site should be properly fenced with barbed wire.
  • Retaining wall should be made all along the foothill of the dump to prevent run off in the adjoining area.
  • Coir matting may be put over to the dump area and considerable amount of soil may be spread over it. Seeds of plant of local species/shrubs/grass may be sprayed over it for its stabilization.
  • A series of Check Dams of suitable strength may be constructed in the downstream of the seasonal nallah from the foothill of the dump upto the road about 500 meter to contain/arrest the flow of asbestos mixed waste material.
  • Massive plantation around the dump area as well as at the foot hill should be done to arrest air borne dust moving away from the dump site. The revegetation strategy should be use plants which are native to the area and the site should eventually return to the forest common to the region.
  • Grasses and legumes facilitate phytoremediation of metalliferous soils. Phytoremediation relies on suitable plants with metal scavenging properties, Grass legume cover namely Cynodondactylon, Sorghastrumnutans and Acacia concinna and Cajanuscajan may be planted along the waste dump and agricultural land as a barrier.
  • Regular medical surveillance of the local community may be provided involving physical examination that includes a chest roentgenogram and pulmonary functions tests for early detection of lung cancer and impaired lung function.
  • A general hydro-seeding of the Asbestos mixed dump area may be undertaken operating remotely from a helicopter as a slope is very steep.
  • Since the Roro hill falls under the Protected Forest, hence restoration should be carried out under the supervision of Forest Department Govt. of Jharkhand.

At some places, even after shutting down all the operations in all areas where the asbestos were mined the scientific closure of such mines is yet to be done. The lack of concern by the state in this regard is poignant and no efficient measures have been taken place to ensure the safety of the communities residing in the nearby areas.

The State of Rajasthan filed an affidavits on 24.02.2015 stating that the mines have been closed and rules have been complied. But at in the recent visit earlier in 2018, presented a different scenarios. Many sites were identified at various places where the mines were abandoned without out any scientific closure. At some places the barbed wire were the only safety measures taken by the government/ project proponent. Children were seen playing in and around those abandoned mines, some were even seen playing with the raw fibre. The latent period of asbestos to show effect is 10-15 years, and as per an article published on BBC, it is said that the children are at greater risk as compared to adults in case of asbestos contamination. As it is known that asbestosis takes greater time period to develop hence kids are likely to suffer by the time they are young adults. Hence it can be said that a five-year-old is five times more likely than an adult of 30 to develop mesothelioma, a type of cancer linked to asbestos, if they are exposed to it at the same time.

Necessity for Implementation of the Judgement: The scientific closure is particularly needed as the fibre are prone to air dispersal and can contaminate human lungs once in contact. So, we seek your assistance as per the judgement passed by the Hon’ble court to comply by the required measures needed for the scientific closure of the mines and identification of the victims. As Rajasthan has already set a bench mark with state pneumoconiosis board, we are looking forward for a concrete and appropriate action plan for scientific restitution of the mine sites and surrounding areas. The order passed by the chair has to be implemented and the concerned authorities has to take the responsibility to do the needful.

Author – Pooja Gupta