There is a spectre over the verdant fields of Bihar's Muzaffarpur district, hitherto suppressed by the clamour and euphoria of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's massive electoral mandate.

Its cause is asbestos — the magic mineral, paradoxically known by its more sinister monikers of the “killer dust” and “the silent time-bomb.”

In November last, the Kolkata-headquartered Balmukund Cement & Roofing Ltd. (BCRL) proposed to set up an asbestos cement roofing sheet factory in the Marwan block.

If the proposed 3, 00,000 tonnes per annum (TPA)-project flags off, the country could very well have its own version of a ‘Turner & Newall' asbestos epidemic (Once the world's largest asbestos conglomerate, T&N exposed millions to a lethal carcinogen).

While the rest of the country closely tracks the industrial policy in a progressive Bihar, at stake is the populous village of Bishnupur-Chainpur with its 25,000 odd men, women and children.

Since July, this otherwise sleepy hamlet has convulsed steadily into a battleground where a series of bitter skirmishes are being fought between the villagers and the district administration, allegedly hand-in-glove with the company authorities.

Work for the proposed plant continues even after a flurry of demonstrations by villagers, who went on an indefinite dharna in December. Assurances were earlier given by the district authorities that the work would be temporarily stopped.

The company management allegedly let loose not less than 50 armed men to break the proceedings, which resulted in six villagers sustaining severe injuries in a firing.

Instead of apprehending the miscreants, the police swooped down on the homes of two demonstration leaders and put them behind bars on charges of inciting mob protest.

The BCRL plant is based on Chrysotile — the chemical name for white asbestos, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of the present world trade in asbestos.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines white asbestos as “a rare fibrous material that is used to make rooftops and brake linings” while explicitly stating “that all types of asbestos result in lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).”

The Environmental Health Criterion (EHC) no. 203 as laid down by the International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS, established 1980) for Chrysotile asbestos clearly states: “Exposure to Chrysotile asbestos poses increased risks for asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma in a dose-dependent manner. No threshold has been identified for carcinogenic risks.”

As per the company's Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, 29,000 TPA of raw asbestos fibre will be imported from Canada, Brazil and Zimbabwe.

Norms violations alleged

More disturbingly, the EIA report a reveals a consistent and wanton violation of procedural norms under the EIA Notification, 2006.

According to the report, the company has stated that the land acquired by the company is “completely barren” and the project site situated “at a considerable distance of 15 km. from the nearest town.” Whereas, the factory site, which falls between the adjoining areas of Bishnupur-Chainpur, is surrounded by wheat fields, vegetation and human habitation.

While the company claims to have purchased 17.8 acres, villagers allege that close to 44 acres have been registered in the BRCL's name.

There are at least three schools located within 500 metre and around 15-20 schools within 1,000 metres from the site of construction, in addition to a dozen anganwadi centres.

The movement against the factory, in which school children and women have joined in large numbers, has not been motivated by any rigorous scientific study of asbestos hazards but by bitter real-life experience of the “killer dust.”

In 1996, three villagers from Bishnupur-Chainpur who had worked in asbestos factories in Jaipur, Rajasthan, died painful deaths caused by pleural (lung) thickening.

Despite this, the learning curve for the Muzaffarpur district administration has been anything but steep as it initiated allegedly repressive measures since July to silence any form of protest.

During the land acquisition process, the villagers were told that the site was being procured for an agro-based factory or a sugar mill. Even now, the factory site does not have any proper display boards stating the purpose of the construction.

Further, the public hearing, conducted on 28 June by the Bihar State Pollution Control Board (BSCPCB), amounted to nothing more than a sham with the proceedings in glaring contravention of the EIA Notification, 2006, norms.

None of the proceedings, including the contents of the EIA report, were translated into the vernacular language, while the villagers were not allowed to voice their concerns.

“Neither did the Environment Ministry officials from Delhi inspect the site thoroughly nor did they address the villagers' concerns,” said Ramchandra Rai, convener of the Khet Bachao Jeevan Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a local forum to combat the incipient threat of asbestos.

The company also allegedly made no effort to disseminate information to the workers on hazards associated with asbestos, given that there are virtually no environmental and occupational health centres in Bihar.

Despite these alleged violations, in a letter to the company in October, the Ministry of Environment and Forests awarded it environmental clearance.

Activists view the struggle in the larger context of the international tug-of-war over the ban on Chrysotile.

“The debate here is not which type of asbestos, whether blue, brown or white, is more harmful than the other. There is more than sufficient evidence out there to prove just how harmful Chrysotile is,” says Gopal Krishna, convener of the Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI).

According to a December 9 report in the Lancet, “Canada was the world's fourth biggest exporter [behind Russia, Kazakhstan, and Brazil], shipping about 1, 50,000 tonnes per year to developing countries such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where little or no protection existed for workers or exposed populations.”

“While the EIA report is full of the utilitarian qualities of the killer fibre, it hides its disastrous environmental and occupational health-effects. It claims that the dust fibres will be kept below the 0.5 fibre/cc limit, but does not disclose that “safe” and “controlled” asbestos in any form is impossible,” Mr. Krishna said.