FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE… Toxic ship Heads For India

THE decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau (pronounced kle-mon-so), once the pride of the French Navy and having seen action in first Gulf War in 1991, left France on the last day of 2005 on her last journey, to Alang in Gujarat, Asia’s largest ship-breaking yard, to be dismantled for scrap. The main value lies in the 26,000 tonnes of steel the ship will yield, worth about 8 million Euros (Rs 30 crore). The ship herself was sold (to SDIC or Ship Decommissioning Industry Corporation registered in Panama) for a paltry 100,000 Euros (Rs 3.6 crore).

A very tidy profit for SDIC, and for the Indian companies contracted to handle the shipbreaking, Shree Ram Scrap Vessels Pvt Ltd and the Luthra Group, given the relatively low costs of transportation and labour involved in Alang. But the cost to the health and even lives of these helpless unorganised workers will be enormous. Workers at Alang will be exposed to huge quantities of deadly asbestos and a host of other highly toxic substances contained in the innards of the ship, as they break it up and strip it by hand using primitive tools and with no protective gear, special equipment or specialised training. And all the toxic materials will then have to be disposed of somewhere in a landfill (read dumped nearby), exposing numerous others to their ill effects as they get dispersed in the air or seep into ground water.

This is the ugly face of capitalist globalisation. Some people make millions while others, mostly the poor in developing countries, have to pay a heavy price. India is becoming a dumping ground for the toxic garbage of the West which finds it too harmful to handle, too polluting to retain, and too expensive to clean up. So the nasty job is simply outsourced to developing countries, no complaints against loss of jobs on this count. And corporate collaborators in India, abetted by a complicit establishment, are ready to offer scavenging services for a few dollars.

Fortunately, at the time of writing, thanks to the hue and cry raised by various trade unions such as CITU in India and activist groups like Greenpeace and Ban Asbestos Network in France, a Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes has recommended that the Clemenceau not be allowed to enter Indian waters since this would constitute a violation of the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes.

This will not be the last word. The committee has given another 15 days for the French authorities and SDIC to be heard, the union ministry of environment & forests is openly favouring the deal, as is the Gujarat government, and enormous pressure is being brought to bear. Above all, the Supreme Court itself has not yet pronounced on the issue.


Gross illegality is being committed by France. The ship is owned by the French government (till the demolition is complete) which, being the actual signatory to the Basel Convention, should have taken the lead in enforcing it but is itself not only flouting its international obligations but also engaging in various subterfuges to circumvent them.

All through the ‘90s, owners of decommissioned vessels managed to evade the Basel Convention and send these end-of-life ships to Alang and other ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh or China by claiming that these vessels did not constitute “waste” and were actually ships for recycling! However, the COP7 meeting of the Basel Convention ruled that ships-for-scrap are indeed “waste” and this decision was further underlined by the EU in October 2004. Under current EU rules, it is illegal to send end-of-life ships for scrapping unless they are decontaminated first.

It is because of this rule, and the huge toxic burden of the Clemenceau, that the ship was turned away by Turkey in October 2003 and by Greece in November that year. The ship was stranded for months in the Mediterranean and finally had to be taken back to France for the partial decontamination that was eventually done.

France sold the ship to SDIC which was to remove all hazardous materials including all visible and accessible asbestos without, of course, affecting the ship’s “structural integrity”, that is, its ability to float to its destination.

The French government stated at the outset that 90 per cent of an estimated 220 tonnes of asbestos would be removed in Toulon, France, by a specialist company, Technopure Ltd, leaving only about 22 tonnes to be removed in India. This figure later somehow changed to “about 45 tonnes” being left out of an initial 160 tonnes. But Technopure, which cancelled its contract citing the “illegal and immoral” position of the French government and whose officials voluntarily and at their own expense testified before the SCMC, has stated that huge quantities of removable asbestos remain on the ship. Technopure itself had submitted two quotations, one for 3 million Euros and another for 6 million Euros for major decontamination, and was awarded the lower quote based on which it removed 70 tonnes. Technopure feels that over 300 tonnes of asbestos remain in the form of cables, flooring, funnel, boilers and engines, removal of which will not impair the ships structure, and estimates that the Clemenceau contains as much as 500 tonnes of deadly asbestos!

Neither the French authorities nor SDIC has so far given a detailed inventory of asbestos remaining on the ship.

On the other hand, the French authorities have gone to great lengths to justify and legitimise their actions. In the legal case filed by activist groups in France, the French government took the position that the Clemenceau, being a military vessel, was outside the purview of the Basel Convention and even the civil justice system! Astonishingly, the French Court upheld this position and allowed the ship to leave for India.

The claim by Ronon Ballot, Naval Attache in the French Embassy in India, that the export of the Clemenceau to India for scrap is “in strict compliance with European regulations” is clearly unsustainable.


Whereas the Supreme Court and its Monitoring Committee have more or less consistently sought the proper implementation of the provisions of the Basel Convention, the executive and even regulatory authorities have acted most shamefully in defence of unscrupulous and profiteering recycling contractors and against the interests of the workers and the environment.

The Supreme Court ruled in October 2003 that before ships-for-scrap arrive in Indian ports, they should have proper certification from the State Maritime Board or other concerned authority “that it does not contain any hazardous wastes and that the ship should be properly decontaminated by the owner prior to the breaking [which itself should be conducted under supervision of the specialist decontamination company, in this case the SDIC]. This should be ensured by the State Pollution Control Boards.” In February 2005, the SCMC stipulated that the Clemenceau could be allowed into India subject to several conditions such as submission of a report from the contracting company (Sree Ram) providing details of actual quantities of asbestos and other hazardous materials removed from the ship, independent third-party audit verifying the report and certificate from the French authorities that the ship has been decontaminated and does not violate the provisions of the Basel Convention. Further, it stipulated that the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) shall obtain all relevant documents from the French Embassy and “an official statement that hazardous materials including asbestos have been removed up to 98 per cent” as originally promised. None of these conditions have thus far been met.

Instead, the Gujarat Maritime Board had appointed a company, the Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure Ltd (GEPIL) to visit France and submit a report on the hazardous material on the ship. GEPIL is supposed to have made the visit quite some time back but its report is still awaited! Not surprising since GEPIL is a sister-company of Sree Ram and part of the Luthra Group!

It has also been stated that “there is no loose asbestos” on the ship, as if only suitcases of asbestos are to be considered hazardous wastes! For its part, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board has blandly stated that it is quite capable of handling the toxic wastes left over from the ship-breaking but has provided no details of the proposed landfill sites or methods of disposal of other materials.

Perhaps most shameful of all, the secretary of the MoEF, Dr Pradipto Ghosh, went on record in interviews to newspapers and TV channels that there was nothing illegal about the Clemenceau, that it was “completely legal for ships to come to India for dismantling both as per the Indian as well as international laws” (no mention of hazardous materials here) and that “the ship-breaking yard at Alang is as per strict guidelines set up by the Supreme Court, which is regularly monitored by the SCMC and other independent agencies” which is far from the truth.

And through all this, no mention at all of the workers at Alang, of measures taken for their protection from exposure to asbestos and other toxic materials, of any insurance or compensation. Ironically, even some environmentalists prominent in highlighting the entire issue have demanded that France should take back all the asbestos extracted from Clemenceau: this may save some environmental contamination in India but the damage to the workers would have been done in any case.


One aspect of the entire issue has indeed received no attention in the media reports, that is, the dangers of asbestos and its status in India.

Asbestos has been classed as a highly hazardous material by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), especially for workers involved in mining, manufacture or repair and maintenance work on asbestos.

Asbestos is a generic term covering several types of naturally occurring mineral fibres. These fibres can be almost microscopic in size, about 700 times smaller than human hair, and virtually indestructible (the Greek meaning of the word asbestos). Asbestos fibres and dust are known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a particularly virulent and fatal cancer. Asbestos has been responsible for over 200,000 deaths in the USA, and the EU estimates that about 500,000 people will die in Europe over the next thirty years due to mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by asbestos. Asbestos has therefore been banned by over 35 countries which now use alternative materials. In India, many organisations including the National Institute of Occupational Health, backed by extensive studies in leading medical institutions, have called for a complete ban on asbestos which unfortunately has yet to become reality.

India utilises about 125,000 tonnes of asbestos annually, mostly imported from Canada and Russia, in over 30 factories employing about 22,000 workers.