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This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.

Dumping asbestos on Asia 26/2/01

ROBERT PIGOTT:
The industrial revolution has come late to India. Economic growth is pursued with an urgency tinged with desperation. India's priorities don't always lie with the health of its workers. In a two-room house in Sabarmati, Mrs Goplani is mourning her husband. He died a few months ago of a disease caused by asbestos. Kishnan Goplani worked at the city's power station. Now the family's only income is from Mrs Goplani's work there as a cleaner.

SARITIBEN GOPLANI:
FACTORY CLEANER TRANSLATION
He worked in the boiler room. He got his breathing problems there. He didn't have it before.

PIGOTT:
Another worker at the power station is seriously ill. Six of his colleagues have died in the last few years. He suffers from chest pain, fits of coughing and nausea. He told me that he used to mix the lagging with a stick and then picked it up to spread it on. He showed me how he used his hands to smooth it down. The lagging is a compound made from asbestos. Asbestos fibres have been shown to be highly dangerous, but he was given no protective clothing. Nor is there much to protect those who are part of India's boom in construction. The drive for economic growth has led to building on an unprecedented scale. Asbestos sheets, banned from new construction in the West, are relatively cheap and widely available. Where it's still legal, asbestos - heat-resistant and insulating - has myriad uses. In a roadside garage, asbestos brake linings are scrubbed clean to extend their life. Asbestos is most dangerous when its fibres are released into the air, but no-one here seemed much concerned. Harsh Jaitli heads a group trying to raise awareness about the hazards of working with asbestos. He campaigns for better protection for workers, but gets little help from the law.

HARSH JAITLI:
OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH CAMPAIGNER
In India there are many loopholes in the law. There are many factories and few inspectors. There's a reason they come to India. We have a large market. Even if you produce a dangerous product you can sell it easily if it costs less.

PIGOTT:
With a billion people to house, India is an easy place to sell asbestos. But it's considered so dangerous it's banned in most of the industrialised world. The European Union says no safe level of exposure has yet been identified. Even the World Trade Organisation says bans on asbestos are justified to protect human life. But even as their markets in industrialised countries are closed, asbestos producers are finding huge new markets to exploit - among people who know little of the epidemic of cancer asbestos has created elsewhere. Canada is well aware of the legacy of disease asbestos has left in rich countries, but the knowledge has done nothing to limit its exports to developing countries. In fact they have markedly increased. At a factory in the suburbs of Delhi, raw Canadian asbestos is prepared for mixing into cement. This company is owned by a group called Birla, which produces about a third of India's asbestos sheeting.

V PATTABI:
The sheets are cut to size...

PIGOTT:
Birla showed us round their factory, reputedly one of India's safest. Figures, collected by the company, show less fibre in the atmosphere than the standards would allow.

V PATTABI:
This bag is impermeable. The fibre level is now at 0.15.

PIGOTT:
But we found asbestos lying on machinery open to the air. So there is quite a lot of it lying around?

V PATTABI:
It depends on if you clean once a week. The asbestos you find is minimal.

PIGOTT:
Canada, the biggest exporter of asbestos, tried but failed to prevent the EU imposing a ban on asbestos. Now 70% of Canadian exports go to Asia. Birla produces a million tonnes of sheeting each year. Once it leaves the factory the company has no control over how it's used.

V PATTABI:
ASBESTOS INSTITUTE OF INDIA
The practices in India, which are recommended - in those conditions we find that the dust levels are acceptable. Somebody may be using it wrongly and exposing himself - it's possible. Secondly, you said the data was only mine. Yes, but I am telling you the truth. Whether you believe me or not, I leave to you.

PIGOTT:
The asbestos dust that can be so deadly is released when cement sheets are sawn into convenient lengths or drilled with holes so they can be fixed into place. Enforcing rigorous health and safety standards is almost impossible in a country where asbestos sheeting is so freely available. The multitude of carpenters, builders and householders who use it get scant advice about best practice. At India's Occupational Health Institute there's concern about the widespread use of asbestos. Health officials admit that there's little way of monitoring any disease caused by asbestos and say people may often die of lung cancer without it being diagnosed.

DR H N SAIYED:
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH
The industry says there is no record of cancer, but human biology is the same all over the world. Indians don't react differently. There should be cases of lung cancer from exposure to asbestos. We don't have the records, because people get lung cancer after 30 years of exposure - maybe 40 years. After that they retire - no track is kept, they go back to their villages and probably those who suffer die quietly without being probed into.

PIGOTT:
Rajeev Agarwal is an architect who has ruled out the use of asbestos in any of his buildings. He says the asbestos industry must be aware of how their cement sheets are really used.

RAJEEV AGARWAL:
ARCHITECT
Best practice doesn't exist. It's ridiculous to imagine that clean masks would be employed in using asbestos. You can go anywhere and see people drilling and sawing through asbestos with their mouths and faces unprotected.

PIGOTT:
In your opinion, is it necessary - as the industry says - to use asbestos to be economically feasible.

AGARWAL:
Asbestos has a lot of uses but I don't subscribe to the view that it is the only low-cost feasible material. In this house, for example, we've used stone in the roofing and brick as roofing material.

PIGOTT:
For larger roof spans, Mr Agarwal often uses galvanised iron, which he says can work out as cheaply as asbestos. He went on to show me some of the houses in which he specialises.

AGARWAL:
This technology is as local as it can get - as low-cost as it can get. This is local grass that grows in the monsoon. It's cut, dried and stored for use like this. It can easily be bundled to make a roof like this.

PIGOTT:
The asbestos industry's public advertising has recently become more discreet. But architects and developers in India do receive direct mailing emphasising the advantages of asbestos products. The industry also has political influence, and the government is vulnerable to any claim that it's blocking development.

DILIP BISWAS:
CENTRAL POLLUTION CONTROL BOARD
Even within the government we have to play a role - not necessarily an enviable one. Sometimes we are seen as being anti-development or anti-progress. It's not looked at that these kinds of activities can, in the long run, cause long-lasting damage, even to the economy.

PIGOTT:
Poor countries have often been the dumping ground for products banned in the West as unhealthy. Nations desperate for raw materials have been glad to buy so cheaply. Now asbestos production is expanding as fast as the Indian economy. The true cost of asbestos may be paid in death and disability several decades from now.

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