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Will India end this deadly trade? Swiss tycoon jailed for causing asbestos deaths

By Rosamma Thomas* 
Swiss billionaire Stephen Schmidheiny,73, was sentenced by an Italian court on June 7, 2023, to 12 years in jail for the deaths of 392 people from asbestos exposure. Schmidheiny ran the Eternit Italia factory at Casale Monferrato in Piedmont, the largest of his six factories, where asbestos was used to strengthen cement in the 1970s and 80s. Under Italian law, the owner of the factory rather than the firm is tried for the deaths of workers from a cause that relates to work.
Ban Asbestos Network India (BANI), in a press release on June 9, 2023, said the fate of Schmidheiny awaits those in India causing deaths by asbestos exposure. Eternit has plants in India as well, and even the new Parliament building in India is not asbestos-free, the press release said. On January 27, 1995, the Supreme Court of India in Consumer Education and Research Centre vs. Union of India had ruled that all asbestos factories in India must preserve health records of their workers for 40 years, or for 15 years after their retirement.
Stephen Schmidheiny had been awarded an honorary degree by Yale University, and the BANI called for the revocation of that honour. Foundations funded by the family of Schmidheiny had awarded the UN Secretary General and Infosys founder-chairman NR Narayana Murthy a freedom prize, and it is time these “tainted awards” were returned, the press note said.
India is now the world’s biggest asbestos consumer, importing from Russia, Brazil, Kazakhstan and other nations. Diseases caused by asbestos exposure have a long incubation period, and illness can result five decades after exposure. Even if the ban takes effect today, there will be people suffering from past usage, the press note mentioned.
Harminder Bains, whose father was among those who died from asbestos exposure, was on the team of lawyers that tasted victory in this case. “Eternit does have asbestos manufactories in India and is responsible for many asbestos related deaths,” she said. The UN has taken note of a study of the asbestos factory in Kymore, Katni, Madhya Pradesh, where asbestos dumping had contaminated soil and air. Eternit was a shareholder in five asbestos factories in India, and sold its shares ahead of the ban on asbestos in Belgium in 2011. It is ironic that Everest, the firm that currently runs the Kymore factory, takes up tobacco control as it Corporate Social Responsibility activity! Everest has factories in Nashik, Coimbatore, Roorkee and Kolkata.
Naval dockyards use asbestos for its fire insulation properties, and among those suffering as a result are people of the Indian Armed Forces, with long years of such exposure. The Indian Railways is currently engaged in the process of making stations asbestos free. The press note from BANI urges an immediate audit of the current status of victims of exposure; it has also suggested that medical colleges mandate instructions on how to treat victims of such exposure. Nearly 70 nations have so far banned asbestos. The press note states that many asbestos cement factories – the major use of asbestos in India is for cement – are owned by members of Parliament. India also does not record cases of mesothelioma, and the lack of data is presented as an absence of disease. There is a compelling logic of charging manufacturers with manslaughter, the press release noted.
*Freelance journalist



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