Library / 7 January 2006
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The global toxic dump
by Praful Bidwai, Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates)
 
7 January 2006 – If there is one industry in India which surpasses the terrifying brutality of the life of the poor in early industrial England, described so memorably by Charles Dickens, it is shipbreaking. This involves, if you like, a physical confrontation between desperately impoverished, anaemic, men armed with pitiably primitive tools, and the rotting carcasses of condemned ships, full of corroded and unstable steel plates, rust, and heavy equipment all ready to collapse. The confrontation damages both sides.

By the time the workers have finished tearing up the ship, many will have broken their limbs, sustained bad burns, and breathed vast quantities of asbestos dust, fumes of carcinogenic chemicals and gases like ammonia — all to earn Rs75 a day. Their employers will have made their millions in profit.

Alang, on the Gujarat coast, is the centre of this nightmarish business. The trade can be measured in financial turnover (Rs3,000 crores), or more realistically, in terms of the damage caused to people’s health and the environment, running into tens of thousands of crores. Alang has made India the world’s biggest dumping ground for merchant ships. Now, India could become the globe’s greatest graveyard for discarded warships too. That’s what will happen if the decommissioned French aircraft-carrier Clemenceau, now on its way to Alang, is allowed to be scrapped. The ship will yield 22,000 tonnes of steel, worth $10 million. It will also release hundreds of tonnes of asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), contaminated oils, mercury, cadmium, lead, and toxic sludge.

The Clemenceau is being towed to India — in blatant violation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Export of ships containing hazardous material with a view to scrapping them contravenes this treaty, which all prohibits toxic-waste movement from developed to developing countries. It’s also forbidden by India’s Supreme Court.

The French government is being brazen about the Clemenceau business: it even flew Indian reporters to Paris/Toulon to showcase its environmental ‘concern’. Equally disgraceful is the collusion between the French and Indian governments and waste exporters, importers and processors. France has been trying to get rid of the Clemenceau right since its decommissioning in 1997. It tried to palm it off to Greece, Spain and Turkey, but failed. Finally, it sold it to Panama-registered SDIC for Euro 100,000. SDIC has entered into a partnership with two Indian firms for dismantling it.

At the heart of this toxic bargain are lies. SDIC claims it has decontaminated the ship of asbestos. (Asbestos is used extensively as an insulating agent and fire-retardant. On inhalation, it causes lung silicosis and cancer.) But the Clemenceau is not free of asbestos. Its original asbestos inventory was estimated by France’s defence ministry at 160 to 250 tonnes. SDIC removed only 115 tonnes. What remains can produce hundreds of thousands of cancers.

The remaining quantity may be greater than 45 tonnes. According to the head of Technopure, employed by SDIC to carry out decontamination, the ship still has 500 to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos. This violates the stipulation by the Indian Supreme Court’s hazardous-waste Monitoring Committee that the ship must be decontaminated of asbestos to the extent of 98 per cent before it can beach.

Nevertheless, the Clemenceau is being towed to India. Without an engine, it’s not a ship, but a mere container with steel, asbestos, and other assorted poisons. The French government speciously argues that the Basel Convention doesn’t apply to ‘war material’ like the Clemenceau. But the convention covers all North-to-South waste exports. The waste-trade lobby claims that the remaining asbestos can be ‘safely’ removed from the Clemenceau and sent back to France. Nothing could be falser. The real hazard lies in removing the asbestos in Alang. Its fine fibres will be inhaled in large quantities to disastrous effect. The harm can’t be undone by repatriating the asbestos. Asbestos is only one of the Clemenceau’s numerous hazards. Others include contaminated oils, PCBs, lead-acid batteries, and bilge water.

Central to this deception is India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Gujarat Maritime Board. According to the Supreme Court’s October 14, 2003 order, the exporter of a ship must declare that it doesn’t carry hazardous material. Before arriving at port, it must have “proper consent from the concerned authority” (GMB). But the GMB says it’s not aware of the Clemenceau’s arrival. The trick is to let the ship get beached. Once beached, it won’t be sent back.

This is what happened with Danish ship Ricky last April. It arrived illegally in India. Denmark’s environment minister warned her Indian counterpart (A. Raja): “I believe our interests are joint — and I call on you to cooperate in this case by denying the ship to be dismantled.” India was legally obliged under Basel Articles 1.1.b, 6 and 9 to treat the Ricky as hazardous waste. But Raja refused. He contended: “India has adequate capacity to ensure its environmentally sound disposal.” India patently lacks such capacity. Yet, this bogus argument is repeatedly used to promote toxic-waste imports.

The Clemenceau is a litmus test. MoEF is hell-bent on having it scrapped in Alang on the claim that “we have safety norms in place.” But this is a blatant lie. If the Clemenceau is dismantled at Alang, other countries will send their retired warships to India. The US alone has 170 such ships. India could become the world’s greatest-ever military-cum-civil toxic dump. Alang’s ship-breakers have made millions on the bloodied backs of disease-ridden workers who live in the filthiest imaginable conditions. There are no toilets, washrooms, or electricity. The men live in shanties built with contaminated plastic and wood. They have no rights, not even identity cards.

Alang represents the ultimate pathology of growth based on poisoning people and the environment with the West’s toxic junk. It also betrays the extraordinarily low self-esteem of India’s rulers. Alang must be scrapped. The only question we should ask is how to find the 40,000 workers dignified employment, while prosecuting waste-trade criminals, and rolling back the toxic tide.

 
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