Sovereigns of the Week: Indian Students from Bihar India

As reported on BBC.

Devendra Ram was overjoyed when he first saw a factory being built near his village in Bihar.  It was an asbestos factory and the villagers were told it would provide jobs in Muzaffarpur district, an area where farm incomes had long been dwindling. But then the children of the village got involved.

Mr Ram’s teenage son, Hare Krishna, told him about what he had learned in school. In his biology and chemistry lessons at the government-run school, he found out about the harmful effects of asbestos. On hearing that an asbestos factory was going to be built in their village, Hare Krishna and other students launched a protest. They told their farmer parents about the potentially deadly nature of asbestos.

Then they too got involved in the campaign against the factory. The protests against the factory have been so fierce that construction work has come to a temporary halt.

Protest movement

It has been an acrimonious battle. Police fired on protesting villagers last month, injuring three farmers. More than 24 people have been injured in baton charges. Campaigners say this could be the first time that students have launched a protest movement on the back of lessons learned in school. It is remarkable, not just for the vociferous nature of the protest but also because this is a poor, remote area with high levels of illiteracy.

Villager Vinod Kumar Singh said his teenage daughter, Sonam, took the lead in convincing her mother and other women in the village. “She literally forced us to oppose the set-up of the factory,” he said.

 Sonam says she will not stop educating villagers “until everybody comes out to oppose” the factory. “If the government allows the factory they should first burn our school books in which they teach us about the deadly effects of asbestos,” said Sonam. Villagers surrounding her clapped and nodded vigorously in agreement. The movement has caught the attention of India’s environmentalists and prominent social workers, including Medha Patkar.

And India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has sought details about the factory from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Mr Kumar said a consensus must be built across the country on the use of asbestos. Meanwhile, the schoolchildren of Muzaffarpur are demonstrating every day to make people aware of the hazardous effects of the “asbestos dust”.

Fears unfounded

But a manager at the company setting up the factory says the fears of the villagers are unfounded. “There are no protests against the factories in these areas. Unlike blue asbestos, white asbestos is harmless. The villagers are being mis-informed,” he said.

One form of asbestos, white asbestos, is widely used in the developing world, but is banned on health grounds in many industrialised countries. The World Health Organisation says it too is associated with diseases such as mesothelioma, lung and other cancers, but its promoters say it is safe if used properly.

But the villagers are not satisfied with Mr Tiwari’s explanations. They say that school text books approved by the Bihar government itself show that all forms of asbestos are not only harmful but also cause deadly diseases such as cancer. “Come what may, we will not allow the factory to come up,” the villagers chanted in unison.

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