Rajendra Pevekar, a butcher in a working-class Mumbai neighborhood, remembers falling asleep on his father's chest as a child and seeing shiny specks of dust on the older man's clothes. What Pevekar, 45, didn't know was that the dust has a name—asbestos—and a record of wrecking the lungs of those who inhale it. His father unintentionally carried the fibers home from his job at a Mumbai auto-parts factory owned by British manufacturer Turner & Newall. Only last year, after attending an event organized by a nonprofit public-health group, did Pevekar draw a connection between the dust, his father's early death, his mother's debilitating shortness of breath, and his own pulmonary problems. "This is a slow poison," says Pevekar. "It destroys your lungs, and you don't even know it."
Pevekar's mother was among the first Indians last December to get paid about 700,000 rupees ($15,600)—more than 10 times her son's annual income—from a trust established by Turner & Newall, which went bankrupt in 2001 under the weight of asbestos-related litigation, to compensate workers and their families affected by asbestosis. An additional 40 workers received payouts in May, bringing the total to 104 million rupees.
The lessons learned by richer nations, which began banning asbestos in factories in the 1970s, are slow to take hold in India, where demand for cheap building materials for millions of slum dwellers has overpowered concerns about worker safety. Asbestos fibers can bruise the lung tissue, leaving scars that cripple the organ's ability to process oxygen and sometimes cause lung cancer.
India is the world's largest importer of asbestos, according to U.N. data, and the shipments received from Russia, Canada, and Brazil mostly go into making corrugated roofing sheets, a fixture in Indian slum dwellings that sell for as little as 300 rupees. More than 100,000 Indians are employed by companies using asbestos, according to an industry lobbying group. "It is totally outrageous," says Gopal Krishna, founder of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. "We've known that this stuff is deadly for many years, and the government is not banning it."
The Indian government requires factories to ensure that workers aren't exposed to air containing more than one fiber per cubic centimeter, a level 10 times the maximum limit in the U.S. Yet regulation is lax and inspections infrequent, says Jagdish Parikh, a retired deputy director of the National Institute of Occupational Health in the west Indian city of Ahmedabad. India's ministries of health and labor declined to comment. When asked whether asbestos should be banned, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says, "I will have to study the impact. I haven't been able to put my mind to it yet."
At Everest Industries' roof factory in the village of Lakhmapur, a four-hour drive from Mumbai, asbestos and other materials are mixed together in giant vats. Only two of about two dozen employees seen on a recent visit were wearing face masks. Many of the workers' clothes carried traces of gray dust, and the cavernous shop floor had no visible exhaust system. "It is a well-ventilated area, as per the requirement," says K.K. Rameshan, the plant's general manager. "No exhaust system is needed here."
When workers suffer health problems, the process for seeking compensation is arduous. Patients need a certificate from the government-run Employees' State Insurance Corp. to be eligible for disability benefits. Through 2009, only 54 asbestos workers had received compensation from the agency, says Madhumita Dutta from the Ban Asbestos Network in Chennai. Some employees don't apply for fear of losing their jobs, and others are frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles, says Raghunath Manwar, a union activist who is trying to help workers at a factory owned by Gujarat Composites in Ahmedabad get compensation for asbestos-related health problems. "I have been going to the government office for the last five years, but they keep sending me back," says Chinnappan Chinnakannu, 57, one of the workers Manwar is helping. D.K. Dutta, the general manager of the Gujarat factory in Ahmedabad, says, "We maintain all the safety procedures that are required."
While growing up, Pevekar, the butcher, shared a single room with his father, mother, and four siblings. They all inhaled fine asbestos particles from the elder Pevekar's clothes, he recalls. Decades later, Pevekar can't climb more than two flights of steps. "I worry about living long enough and well enough to take care of my children," he says. "I want our lives back."
The bottom line: Indian workers affected by asbestos struggle to collect compensation from the government, which has approved payment in only 54 cases.