Ghosts of the asbestos mines – a tale of doomed villages in toxic land!

  • Damayantee Dhar

Women can been seen dressed in widow’s garments, contaminated hill side serve as playground for children, barren fields tell of the toxic legacy – Roro, 20 kms from Chaibasa West Singhbhum, here there is no leafy greens or humming streams!

Roro is a village of former asbestos mine workers. The place reeks of tell-tale signs of careless closure and the 14 villages that surround the mountains. The hills here were once mined both for asbestos and chromium. Now only thing that can be seen here is toxic waste – the left overs of 70 years of mining, first by small, local players and then by big ones like Tata and Birla.

The asbestos mines were closed down in 1983 after Hyderabad Asbestos Cement Products Ltd. (now known as Hyderabad Industries Limited of the CK Birla group) decided that they were no longer profitable. If there is one example of sheer corporate and Government negligence, it is this.

About 7 million tons of toxic waste is not exactly a playground for children but the children of Roro come here to scavenge for iron scraps that are sold for Rs 12 per kilogram. The slope of the hill which is now a powdery slide is used as a giant slide by the children.

However, what they don’t know is that such naked exposure to asbestos dust could result in serious diseases like asbestosis, asthma and even cancer.

There are ex miners who have died before their times. “So many people have died before they turned forty,’ says Birsingh Sondi Sahayak Munda (Deputy Chief) of Roro, who points to his neighbour’s house, “There lived Mangalsingh Sondi, who was 25 when he died.”

Dumbi Boipai , an ex-miner who feels recurring pain in his chest remembers his fellow miners who all are dead, he mumbles first to himself and then aloud, “Pooliya Sondi, Rohto Gop, Vijay Singh Sondi, Rahto Samadh…”

Some like Mukund Sundi are barely alive. His young wife is helpless, resigned, refusing to talk.  “I worked in the crusher, where they produced asbestos,” says Sundi. They use to pay us Rs 7 a day.” Some of his symptoms match TB, but doctors can’t pinpoint his illness and so they offer no cure.

There has been no assistance for Mangal Sundi from his former employers. “Koi nahi aya madad ke liye. Koi mera ilaj bhi nahi karwata.” (No one ever has come up for help. No one got me treated.)

“Workers who are exposed to asbestos and they are suffering from asbestos-related diseases like asbestosis and mesothalamia. Doctors call them TB patients, as they want to save their employers from giving any compensation,” claims Gopal Krishna, coordinator of the Ban Asbestos India (BANI) Network, a NGO working against the use and production of asbestos nationwide.

In the 4500 crores turnover industry, companies’ claim that the kind of asbestos used in India is not carcinogenic, even as all forms of asbestos are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It is mentioned who mention in a report that was published in 2010 – ‘Epidemiological evidence has increasingly shown an association of all forms of asbestos with an increased risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma.’

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