Library / 16 June 2006
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India dances on the toxic dirt
by Madhumita Dutta,
16 June 2006 (New Delhi)The environment ministry is blatantly allowing ships containing toxics to enter the Indian waters. At this rate, soon the country will become the favourite dumping ground for the world.

In April 2005, a Danish ferry Riky, originally named the Kong Frederik IX, illegally arrived at Alang in Gujarat, the largest ship-breaking yard in the world. The ship, which contained hazardous substances such as asbestos, poly-chlorinated biphenyls and heavy metals in its structure, was allowed to beach at Alang by the Indian authorities and finally dismantled. This was allowed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests despite prior warnings and repeated diplomatic recall requests from the Danish government to return the ship to Denmark for prior decontamination.

In October of the same year, another Danish ship, Dronning Margrethe II, leaden with toxic substances including asbestos, arrived illegally in Alang. Once again the ministry ignored alerts and requests by the Danish government to sent back the ship.

Almost on the heels of the Danish ships came the French decommissioned aircraft carrier le Clemenceau, another ship that contained hazardous wastes. It too would have found it’s way to Alang were it not for a blitzkrieg campaign and legal interventions by the French Supreme Court that forced the French government to recall the ship.

And for the last two months a legal battle is on in the Indian Supreme Court over the entry of a former Norwegian cruise liner SS Blue Lady – a.k.a. SS Norway, SS France – which has substantial quantities of toxic substances on board. On 5 June 2006, the Supreme Court allowed the anchoring of the ship in the Indian waters based on flawed recommendations of the Technical Experts Committee on ship breaking, set up by the court. The committee recommended that, ‘…. in the view of the upcoming monsoon which is likely to cause difficult weather conditions in the high seas and that provisions on board were limited, that the ship may be permitted to anchor safely in Indian territorial waters, off Alang coast.’ So, while taking refuge under humanitarian ground, the committee ignored some critical issues of prior decontamination, Form 7 from country of export and misinformation given by the ship breaker. In fact, the bias of the committee is evident from the fact that it only consulted the ship breaker while making the recommendations.

There are two facts that are common to all the above instances. One, the complete disregard for the Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Basel Convention), an international treaty to which India is a signatory; and second, blatant violation of the order of the Supreme Court, which had prohibited the import of hazardous wastes in an order on 14 October 2003.

The ministry has essentially based its reasons for allowing the ships to enter Indian waters on two specious grounds. First, that a ship sailing under its own power is not a waste. The second argument is based on the discredited belief that ‘…. India has adequate capacity to ensure environmentally sound disposal of the said ship.’

The ministry has attempted to unilaterally reverse the Basel Convention by foisting its own definitions of waste. And while doing so, it has set us back by a decade in terms of preventing India from becoming a dumping ground of toxic wastes.

The ministry gave a flawed argument that the ship was not a waste as it was sailing under its own power. As in a recent decision taken at the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention – a treaty which prohibits movement of hazardous wastes from the member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organisation of developed countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and a free market economy, to non-OECD countries – clarifies that even ships under their own power can be considered wastes under the convention if the purpose of the voyage is scrapping or disposal.

The ships-for-scrap that contain hazardous substances are treated as hazardous wastes as per the convention. Incidentally, the SS Blue Lady is being towed to India and so was the le Clemenceau. So even going by their own definition of waste, these ‘dead vessels’ would clearly fall within the category of hazardous waste.

As for the second argument about India possessing adequate capacity to deal with toxic waste generated from ship-breaking, it is well-known that the conditions at the yards of Alang or Mumbai are a far cry from the environmentally sound management of wastes as laid down in the Basel Convention. Moreover, in May 1997, the Supreme Court of India set aside arguments of environmentally sound management and prohibited the import of hazardous wastes.

The still prevalent working conditions and handling of toxic wastes in these yards are highlighted by a report Status of Shipbreaking Workers in India - A survey by the International Metalworker’s Federation, which says ‘…. the exploitative situation that over 60,000 workers confront, exposed to extremely dangerous and unhygienic working conditions…. Workplaces lack everything from drinking water to protective gear and medical aid….’ The report further states, ‘The workers have no specific training on handling the hazardous toxic material…. The rate of injury is 50 workers per day and sometimes workers die due to inadequate or lack of medical facility. Report of casualty is seldom made.’

The ministry has committed yet another grave violation of the law. The Supreme Court in its order of October 2003 noted that ‘before a ship arrives at a port, it should have proper consent from the concerned authority’, that ‘the ship should be properly decontaminated by the ship owner prior to the breaking’ and that ‘…. India should participate in…the Basel Convention’s Technical Working Group with a clear mandate for the decontamination of ships of their hazardous substances such as asbestos, waste oil, gas and PCBs prior to exports to India for breaking.’ Despite being alerted about the hazardous ship-for-scrap headed for Indian shores by the public interest groups and even a foreign government, the Indian environment ministry in all the above cases, neither sought information regarding the hazardous substances on board, nor cooperate with another Basel party – namely, Denmark in case of Riky – and never insisted on decontamination of ships by the ship owners in the country of export.

Needless to say, that the current position of India not only shows its disregard for Basel but also for its own legal system. Now that the floodgates have been thrown open by the ministry, we should not be surprised if unscrupulous foreign hazardous waste marketers target India as their favourite destination for their deadly cargo.

[Madhumita Dutta, an activist, is currently associated with the Corporate Accountability Desk, The Other Media and member, and the NGO Platform on Ship-breaking.]

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