Far a very long time, the union movement in India has worked with a peculiar structure - the affiliation of the major workers' unions with political parties. This has meant that the politcial interests of those parties were placed first, and workers' concerns were taken up only within the umbrella of such partisanship. Many unions have, as a result, lost their credibility as effective ways of addressing labour issues. Moreover, the varying political affiliations of various workers' organisations has effectively split their voices, rendering each of them quite powerless on its own.
Against this backdrop, a new effort is now underway to more clearly separate the interests of workers from other aims, especially political ones.
Unexamined in the media, workers in India work up to their knees in asbestos powder, breaking up asbestos cement roofs and pipes. Stories of the toll asbestos takes on people are yet to hit the headlines in India as been the case in US, Europe, Australia and Japan. Indian homes are often built of asbestos cement roofs, and people cut their own windows and doorways. Research is showing asbestos epidemics across the globe even in countries where it is currently banned, as the consequence of past exposure, with estimated deaths reaching 30 per day.
While white asbestos mining is currently banned in India, its import, export or use in manufacturing is permitted. But recently, the Ministry of Mines has indicated that it may lift the mining ban.
The reality is that the country's most powerful parliamentarians bless the asbestos industry. On 1 January 2006, production began at an asbestos-cement factory in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh, in the constituency of Sonia Gandhi. The factory is of Visaka Industries, one of India's largest asbestos groups. The company also has asbestos-cement factories in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka. The Chairman of Visaka Industries, G Vivekanand, is the son of the G Venkataswamy, Member of Parliament, Deputy Leader of the Indian Congress Parliamentary Party and a former Union Textile Minister.