Library / 11 February 2006
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Will the SC allow Clemenceau in?
The verdict will be out on Monday. But the toxic ship may already be in Indian waters by midnight.
by Labonita Ghosh, Daily News & Analysis (India)
11 February 2006, (Mumbai) – The Clemenceau is coming. Towed by tugboats at six nautical miles, the former French navy flagship might be in Indian waters by midnight, February 12, and dock at the 200 nautical mile-line just off the Gujarat coast. The following day, a two-member Supreme Court bench will give the final verdict on a case that has been dragging on for months, and decide if the ship should be allowed into the shipbreaking yard at Alang, Gujarat.

To some, the "Clem" appears a 27,000-tonne eco-marauder. Others see it as a treasure trove of 22,000 tonnes of steel and scrap, worth well over Rs 40 crore; never mind the toxic and carcinogenic substances on board: About 760 tonnes of asbestos, between 165 and 330 tonnes of polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals, hazardous chemical additives in paints and possibly lead, copper and zinc, according to assessor Aage Bjorn Andersen. A 10-member Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) has been trying to gather data on the ship, and recently submitted two final reports to the Apex Court, to be heard on Monday.

"There was no consensus on whether or not to let the ship in, hence two reports," says SCMC member Claude Alvares. "We still don't know what it contains, despite asking for an inventory from the French government several times." According to the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, ship that go to die must have a list of materials they contain, oil and gas-free certifications and, usually, a plan indicating where things are.

"Many ships coming into Alang don't have these," says CITU leader P K Ganguly. "This leads to horrific accidents, where ships blow apart and kill or maim workers." Last week, French ambassador Dominique Girard visited Alang and promised that his government would provide an inventory. "We are prepared to take back the asbestos removed from the ship, whatever the quantity, if the Indian authorities so desire," he added. But Alvares says there has been no word on either.

Activists have been trying to stop the decommissioned aircraft carrier ever since it set sail from Toulon, France, last December. In India, organisations like Greenpeace, Corporate Accountability Desk and the Basel Action Network are pressing for a clean-up at home before being sent to Alang. Officials of Technopure, which was hired for a clean-up, deposed before the SCMC recently, saying there was between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of asbestos still left.

"If we allow the Clemenceau, it will set a terrible precedent," says Madhumita Dutta of Corporate Accountability. "There are at least another 1,000 decommissioned, contaminated ships floating around the world. If they all head for Alang, it would be a disaster." Ramapati Kumar of Greenpeace echoes Dutta: "If a government-owned vessel cannot be cleaned up, how can we expect private companies to bother about their vessels?" he asks.

Officials of the Gujarat Maritime Board, ship recyclers and, more recently, the Gujarat Shiv Sena, allege activists are trying to smother the doddering shipbreaking industry at Alang. Till 2003, it had over 40,000 workers and saw as many as 300 end-of-life ships beach on its yards every year. Now there are fewer than 10,000 hands and Alang is rapidly losing business to Bangladesh and China. "Every ship that comes here contains asbestos," says P Nagarseth, president of the Steel Scrap and Shipbreakers' Association. "If we make that a criterion, or insist on owners taking back their waste, Clemenceau will be the last ship to ever come to this port." Unfortunately, hazardous wastes can do much more long-term damage than that.
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