| Dump on us: We’re Indians
by Nityanand Jayaraman, InfoChange India News & Features
26 January 2006 – The Ministry of Environment and Forests is today one of the most vociferous proponents of waste dumping in India. The fate of the French warship Clemenceau – waiting to enter the country with a few hundred tonnes of toxic substances -- could be the clincher that decides whether or not India will remain a trash-servicing economy
“It is far easier to make war than to make peace.”
Georges Clemenceau, President of France (1906 to 1909; 1917 to 1920)
Taking its former president’s words to heart, France sent India a toxic gift in the form of Clemenceau, a mothballed aircraft carrier named after the country’s World War I president Georges Clemenceau. Stripped of its armaments, engines and other necessities that made this hulking piece of steel a warship, Clemenceau made an undignified exit in the darkness of night from the Toulon harbour on December 31, 2005, nudged and pulled by tugboats.
Without its engines, it’s nothing more than 265 metres of floating shell made of 27,000 tonnes of steel, and a few hundred tonnes of toxic substances. Not even a ship. The French government has argued that Clemenceau is not just any ordinary piece of junk, but a “warship” – owned by the French government -- and hence exempt from international law governing waste shipments. The famous warship has seen action during the Iran-Iraq War in 1987-1988 and the 1990 Gulf War. But in its current state, the only war it can wage is against India’s environment and the indigent and choiceless workers of the Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.
Whether it is a warship, or ship or waste is immaterial. The argument is not about the steel or about the legal nuances about whether ships-for-scrap can be considered waste or not; it is about the several hundred tonnes of toxic wastes that are part of the ship.
Given a choice any country would have liked to keep the steel. But you can’t get to the steel without dirtying your hands and the environment with the toxic substances built into the structure of the ship. Ships, particularly old ships such as Clemenceau which was built in 1961, are floating containers of toxins. They contain asbestos for fire-proofing and insulation, poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for heat- and fire-resistance in electrical gadgets, lead, mercury, cadmium and other toxic metals used in paints and other applications. According to established international law – ie the Basel Convention -- the ship or what’s left of it is a waste if it is destined for dismantling. If the ship contains hazardous substances like asbestos and heavy metals, it becomes “hazardous wastes” and its export from rich nations to poorer countries like India is prohibited under the Convention.
At one time, not too long ago, India led the fight by industrialising nations to force rich countries to stop dumping their toxic wastes on developing countries. In November 1992, at the First Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention, A Bhattacharja, the head of the Indian delegation, told the world: “You industrialised countries have been asking us to do many things for the global good – stop cutting down our forests, stop using your CFCs. Now we are asking you to do something for the global good: keep your own waste.”
Not anymore. The Ministry of Environment and Forests is today one of the most vociferous proponents of waste dumping in India. While the Ministry of Steel remains silent on the import of Clemenceau, the environment ministry has taken a position that India has the capacity to deal with such ships, and that in any case, such ships are not waste. This is contrary to what we know of the law and the conditions in Alang.
Alang, the world’s largest shipbreaking yard, is also the world’s most infamous. At its peak, it was breaking on an average one ship a day, and killing one worker a day. Death rates have come down, not because of increased safety, but because depressed steel prices have hurt the business overall.
Despite the noise that environmentalists and labour unions have made on valid concerns, it is the silent manoeuvring of customs and excise duty structures by powerful steel lobbies that has hurt the industry. Despite the periodic strictures by the Supreme Court, environmental protection continues to be viewed as an impediment to growth, particularly by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Little has changed for the environment and workers in Alang. The heavy metal-laden dust from the breaking operations continues to pervade the coastal environment, entering the food chain. Asbestos was, and still is, being dismantled by untrained workers with their bare hands.
Death by asbestosis – a fatal lung disease – is a harrowing experience. It begins much like tuberculosis, with a pronounced shortness of breath, a persistent, rasping cough, and a crackling sound with every breath. Once the symptoms set in, the victim suffers rapid weight loss and typically begins bringing up blood in the sputum every time he coughs. At this stage, it may already be too late. Lodged deep in the microscopic air sacs of the lungs, the fine and virtually indestructible asbestos fibre rubs against the lung tissue forming a hardy scar tissue. The lung loses its elasticity, rendering breathing a difficult and painful exercise. Unlike silica and other lung irritants, the needle-like asbestos fibre pierces the wall of the lung and lodges itself in the pleura. This may lead to a cancer (mesothelioma) that is caused only by asbestos. Even one fibre is sufficient to put you on the fast bus to hell, really.
India gets its cheap steel by sacrificing its workers, who know all too well the dangers of working the ships of death. Dr Frank Hittman, the Occupational Health Officer of the German state of Bremen, said in an interview with German TV in 2000, that the lack of safeguards in handling the various contaminants means that every fourth worker in Alang must be expected to contract cancer.
The Indian government has made it clear that it does not mind the hazards as long as the steel comes cheap. Despite a raging controversy on the Clemenceau matter since late-2004, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes have really done nothing to stop the ship from sailing to India. In a statement to The Hindu, Dr G. Thyagarajan, chairman of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes, said: “My position is that there should be no import and no export of hazardous substances and no exceptions to that rule.”
But Dr Thyagarajan’s strong comments should not be taken too seriously. He doesn’t always mean it is what past experience shows. The Committee has flip-flopped on the issue of hazardous waste imports time and again. In April 2005, when the matter of an illegal export of a fugitive ship-for-scrap called Riky from Denmark was brought to the notice of the Indian government by Danish authorities, the Indian government said that ships-for-scrap are not wastes, and that the ship was welcome. At that time, Dr Thyagarajan wrote: “I am copying this to all the members of the SCMC, who I am sure will agree with me that Riky must be mercilessly driven out of Indian sovereign territory without any further loss of time.”
Subsequently, the SCMC began backtracking under pressure from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, and the shipbreakers’ friends in high places. In response to an application filed in the Supreme Court by Madhumita Dutta of New Delhi-based The Other Media, the SCMC maintained that the Basel Convention does not define ships-for-scrap as wastes, and that the import of Riky was legal and procedurally sound. The SCMC conveniently avoided commenting on the stated fact that at the 7th Conference of Parties meeting of the Basel Convention held in October 2004, all 160 countries present, including the Indian delegation, adopted a decision that categorically defined ships destined for scrapping as “wastes” under the Convention.
Unlike in the case of Clemenceau, where the SCMC demanded relevant information – such as the extent of decontamination done, the quantum of residual toxics onboard, third-party verification etc – the Committee arbitrarily decided against pursuing such information in Riky’s case. This despite the fact that the Government of Denmark had alerted the Indian government of Riky’s clandestine departure from a Danish port, and of the intent of Danish authorities to pursue criminal action against the shipowner for violating the Basel Convention and Danish law. The SCMC did not even monitor Riky’s import and breaking for compliance with Supreme Court-mandated guidelines for shipbreaking. They do not know even today how many tonnes of carcinogenic PCBs, or heavy metal-laden wastes were onboard Riky. They ignored Denmark’s offer for assistance with pursuing such information, or in taking the ship back to Denmark to force the shipowner to decontaminate the ship prior to breaking.
Clemenceau may contain anywhere between 40 tonnes and 500 tonnes of asbestos. What is lamentable, but not at all surprising considering the quality of science practiced by government scientific institutions, is that the expert-packed SCMC has issued arbitrary and unscientific statements regarding the extent of decontamination required, or acceptable. In the case of Clemenceau, one of the several conditions imposed by the SCMC – all conditions were violated by the exporter and importer – stipulated that 98% of the asbestos would have to be decontaminated. Expressing concern about the Indian environment, the SCMC has also recommended that the residual asbestos be re-exported to France.
First, let’s deal with the arbitrary, out-of-the-hat figure of 98%. Why 98? Why not 95% or 100%? If the total asbestos on board is 1,000 tonnes, the SCMC has declared that the shipment would be acceptable and legal if 980 tonnes are removed, and 20 tonnes of asbestos are sent to India. If the total asbestos onboard is only 100 tonnes, it says leaving behind 2 tonnes is okay. The difference between 2 and 20 is significant, but immaterial to the fate of the workers who are forced to strip the asbestos manually.
The Ministry of Environment’s claim that India is capable of dismantling ships in an environmentally sound manner is a lie. The problem is not merely with the environmental fate of asbestos after it is removed. The highest risks are faced by workers engaged in the decontamination. France’s decision to send the ships to India does not stem from a concern for its workers. French workers know their rights. Any worker who handles asbestos is required to be covered by expensive insurance schemes; the precautions to be taken to prevent exposure to workers and the environment cost a lot of money.
Asbestos experts will tell you about cases of exposure even among workers engaged in decontamination in industrialised countries where rigorous precautionary steps are taken as mandated by law. To think that India with its corrupt regulatory system, clueless scientists and intellectually bankrupt oversight committees can do a better job of decontamination than OECD countries is foolish.
The way to work out how much decontamination should be required for ships should be left to intergovernmental panels of specialists set up expressly to handle such tasks. Indeed, the Supreme Court in its order of October 14, 2003, exhorts the Government of India to “participate in international meetings on shipbreaking at the level of the International Maritime Organisation and 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.”
The need of the hour, as rightly pointed out by the apex Court, is for the Open Ended Working Group of the Basel Convention to develop technical criteria to determine how much decontamination is required to render the ship non-hazardous under Basel. This cannot be done by pontificators who arbitrarily decide that 98% decontamination is adequate or that 40 tonnes is okay. Such decisions have to be rooted in science and an understanding of the breaking conditions in countries like Bangladesh and India, where workers enjoy few rights, and the regulators are in bed with the industry.
The fate of the French warship Clemenceau could be the clincher that decides whether or not India will remain a trash-servicing economy. If this is allowed to enter India for breaking, the US is ready to send us another 132 leaking, toxic tubs that were once naval vessels. These ships are currently anchored in Virginia, Texas and California and seen as an ongoing source of pollution of the harbour. Earlier attempts in 1998 to send it to India failed after protests in India by trade unions and local environmental organisations forced the US to place a moratorium on the export of the naval ships. However, the US and a number of other governments with mothballed fleets are looking at the Clemenceau case with much interest.
Unfortunately, Clemenceau is not a clear case of the rich dumping on the poor. The French have rightly assessed the lack of resolve in India to fight waste-dumping. Emboldened by the safe passage granted to the Danish fugitive ships, Riky and Beauport II, by the Ministry of Environment and the SCMC, countries such as France find India a willing recipient of toxic trash.
(Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on unearthing and reporting on corporate crimes against human rights and the environment.)
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