Toxic Trade News / 20 February 2006
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Analysis: Despair as Clemenceau returns
by Kushal Jeena, United Press International
20 February 2006 (New Delhi) – The recall of decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau to France has sewn despair among Indian workers who had hoped to benefit from the wages earned by dismantling the ship at India's largest shipwrecking yard.

"The decision of the French president to recall the ship has ruined the hopes of ship-breaking workers to earn handsome money as breaking of ship would have taken five long years," said N.N. Manna, a prominent Indian trade union leader.

Manna said the decision has come as a major setback to both workers and companies engaged in shipwrecking at the Alang yard in western Gujarat state, adding that the government should have negotiated a solution to suit workers and anti-Clemenceau campaigners.

"This (recall of ship) is very unfortunate for not only ship-breakers and workers but also the ancillary industry, re-rolling mills and foundries which used to thrive on Alang yard," said Mukesh Patel, owner of the Shree Ram Group, which bought the Clemenceau for dismantling.

French President Jacques Chirac Thursday announced that decommissioned asbestos-lined Clemenceau would be recalled after India's Supreme Court refused to give permission for the ship to enter Indian waters.

The ship, which set sail from France in December, was expected to reach Indian shores in the first week of March. The ship's passage was marked by widespread protests from different environmental watchdogs, particularly Greenpeace.

Greenpeace staged a noisy protest at the French embassy in New Delhi and its activists threw garbage at the French mission's gate.

All major Indian trade unions, including the All-India Trade Union Congress, Center of Indian Trade Unions and the New Trade Union Initiative, joined with Greenpeace, saying the ship's entry into Indian waters would violate international treaties.

"The decommissioned ship has been (the) focus of controversy for years as Greece and Turkey have refused to dismantle it on their shores because of environmental and health implications," said Gurudas Dasgupta, a senior trade union leader and vocal Communist lawmaker.

The trade union leaders admitted that the anti-Clemenceau campaign would hurt the financial cause of the working class, but say they were more concerned with the health of workers involved in the shipwrecking process.

"Alang has 30,000 migrant workers from the poor states like Bihar and Orissa who do not enjoy any rights and are not part of trade unions. Fatal accidents at the Indian ship-breaking site are four times higher as compared to any other hazardous industry in India," said CITU's P.K. Ganguly.

The Gujarati government is worried that the recall of the Clemenceau will adversely affect the shipwrecking yard at Alang, which is in urgent need of revival.

Investment in the old yard was largely hinged on the Clemenceau, which would have been the first ship in five years to arrive on the western coast for wrecking. The local government had hoped the successful dismantling of the Clemenceau at Alang would lead to commissions for many of the world's 150 warships currently in line for dismantling.

In recent years the Alang yard has been fast losing business. Following the recall of the Clemenceau, restructuring of the yard seems unlikely.

In 1998, when the yard enjoyed brisk business, 3 million tons of steel were retrieved from 361 ships by nearly 35,000 workers. By 2005, 3,500 workers removed 377,000 tons of steel from 73 ships.

Over the same period, the number of shipwrecking businesses declined from 177 to 20. Those who still remain in the business are planning to leave.

"I will have to diversify into some other business to survive because there is not any money to be made here in ship-breaking business," said Raj Bansal, president of the Alang Ship-breakers' Association.

Competition from Pakistan, China and Bangladesh is one reason behind the decline in the shipwrecking industry. Additionally, there are fewer ships awaiting dismantling.

Gujarat Maritime Board, which owns the Alang yard and leases it out to shipwreckers, wanted to testify to the Supreme Court that it would use the best technology available to protect workers from hazardous asbestos.

The environmentalists and trade union leaders want the government to raise money from shipwrecking profits to create a fund for the welfare of workers.

"We want the Indian government to ensure that ship-breaking will not affect workers' health and will not pollute the environment," said H. Mahadevan, leader of AITUC, the trade union wing of the Communist Party of India.

He said the Basel Convention had banned toxic shipments from rich countries to poor countries. "But most of the western countries are violating the treaty. The French government is not providing correct information on the quantity and nature of toxic elements on board ship," said Mahadevan.

On March 22, 1989 the Basel Convention adopted a resolution banning toxic shipments. The Convention also called for curbing developing-countries' reliance on hazardous waste trafficking, limiting the degree to which developed countries could transport their waste to developing countries.

The Indian Supreme Court appointed an expert committee to investigate whether or not the Clemenceau should be allowed to enter Indian waters. In its report, the committee recommended the court not permit the ship to enter any Indian yard.

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