Rajni Lallah, for LALIT

The Background

In October last year, hundreds of people from some 50 housing estates came in crowds to Port Louis to demonstrate against Government for not replacing asbestos housing they live in, as formally announced by its High Powered Committee of 6 Ministers in 2015. This was a second march to expose the danger of Government neglecting families living with exposure to asbestos fibres.

As from 1986, the State has tried to rid itself of its responsibility for these asbestos houses (and all site houses) by selling them off to inhabitants. This was after States all over the world had formally recognised the danger of asbestos to the health of people exposed to it, and had begun ratifying UN Conventions to stop the use of asbestos. But, the State remains responsible for public health.

The Report made Public

In Mauritius, there have been a number of government reports calling for the replacement of asbestos housing. The first one in 2002 was known as “The Addison Report”. It came to be after a worker, Mr. Claude Marguerite died of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related lung disease. His union, the CTSP, rightly called for the State to take measures to ban asbestos. This move coincided with a first wave of mobilisation by asbestos house dwellers together with LALIT. The Jugnauth-Bérenger government at the time co-funded with the Commonwealth a study by an expert on asbestos, John Addison. In 2002, there was a Cabinet decision to release The Addison Report. The same year, the Health Minister Ashok Jugnauth stated in the National Assembly that he had distributed copies in a press conference and was making a copy available in the Parliamentary Library (quoted in Hansard).

The Report made “Unavailable”

In September 2018, LALIT members needing a copy of this publicly released Addison Report, looked for it in the National Archives and the National Library. The pattern was the same: they started off by saying they had a copy, then said they couldn’t find it. So we went to the Ministry of Health who said they had it, but that we needed to write a formal request addressed to Deputy Permanent Secretary Mr. Nursing for them to photocopy it for us, which we did. We wanted to have it for the October 2018 demonstration so that asbestos house dwellers and LALIT members be informed of its content. We followed up with regular calls to the Ministry of Health, but were told by Mr Nursing that there was some problem with “referencing” of the Cabinet decision to release it. This is odd because the Cabinet decision is on the government website for all to see. We gave him the date and internet address for their reference (http://pmo.govmu.org/English/Pages/Cabinet%20Decisions%202002/Cabinet-Decisions-taken-on-19-April-2002.aspx ).

But they still would not let us have access to the Report. So after almost two months of trying, in November 2018, we finally entered a formal complaint to the Ombudsman against officers of the Ministry of Health for maladministration. 

The Report made Secret

On the 27 December, we finally extricated a “reply”, or more accurately a non-reply from the Ministry of Health. Mr. Nursing admitted that there was indeed a Cabinet decision to release the Addison Report, but very strangely adds that as there is no record that the Ministry released the Report and that “new approval” of the Government would have to be sought. He adds “It is expected that the decision of the Government will be finalized by early February next year.” It is now over a month beyond his own deadline. Neither the Ministry nor the Ombudsman has informed us of anything.

So, a State Report that was publicly released 17 years ago, distributed to the Press and put in the National Assembly Library is now made secret! 17 years after the Addison Report, some 2,000 families are still living in dangerous State-built and State-sold asbestos housing. The State now even denies people freedom of information, that is, the right to know what the expert’s Report says.

What could be in the Report?

LALIT rang Mr. John Addison up to know what he had recommended regarding asbestos housing. He was shocked and saddened to hear that there are still people living in asbestos housing to this day and that the State had not replaced the houses. He said to us: “I would not approve of that”. Which gives us a fair idea why the Ministry is bureaucratically blocking the release of the Report.

In the name of freedom of information and in the name of public health since it asbestos causes serious illness with long exposure, we call on everyone who has a copy of the Report to make it public, as it ought to be.

25 March 2019.