Volume 7, No. 4, April. 2006



— Rashmi

On French President Jacques Chirac on 15 February ordered the decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau back home, after the country’s top administrative body ruled that the warship contained too much asbestos to legally be sent to India for dismantling. The Clemenceau, which had already been moored outside Indian territorial waters as courts in India deliberated over whether to let it in, will now be towed back to the French naval base in Brest, where it will remain until a solution is found for its disposal.
Chirac announced the recall moments after the French Conseil d’Etat, the supreme arbiter of the legality of government decisions, cancelled the ship’s export documents on the grounds that the vessel contained more asbestos than previously thought, and that it therefore fell afoul of EU laws on industrial waste. He has also ordered an inquiry into how much asbestos the vessel contained — one of the main areas of contention between the French government and environmental groups. Asbestos trade is regulated by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboun-dary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.
The ship was halted en route to India in January, after an Indian Supreme Court committee (SCMC) made an interim report recommending that the ship not be allowed to enter Indian waters. After the committee returned a split final decision, with seven members in favour of accepting the ship under strict conditions and three recommending its return to France, the Supreme Court decided on 13 February to create a new panel of technical experts that would determine whether the Clemenceau should be allowed to enter the country. French gov-ernment officials had suggested that France would take the ship back if the Supreme Court denied it permission to enter India.
The 27,300 tonne ship was headed towards India after Europe had turned it back. The former flagship of the French Navy had come into service in 1961 and had participated in most of the French Naval operations. It spent 3,125 days in a total of seven seas which, it had sailed almost 50 times. More than 20,000 sailors had served on board of this ship. The French Navy placed the ship in special reserve after it completed 36 years of service and later the French ministry of defence decommissioned it. Since that time in 1997, the ship’s voyage has been mired in controversy and it has been looking for a shipyard for dismantling. Failing to find a shipyard in Europe willing to take the decommissioned aircraft-carrier for dismantling, the French authorities chose Alang on the Gujarat coast.
Countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have developed massive shipbreaking industries in which low-wage workers, poorly equipped to prevent both damage to themselves and the environment, dismantle ships for scrap metal. The Clemenceau had been purchased by an Indian company, Shri Ram Vessels Scrap Pvt Ltd. from the SDIC ( Ship Decommissioning Industry Corporation), the Panama-registered private company retained by the French state to dispose of the ship.
Controversy over amount of toxin on board
The controversy surrounding the Clemenceau, which left France on 31 December 2005, stems from the presence on board of undetermined quantities of hazardous materials, in particular asbestos, that were not removed before its departure.
French authorities say that their assessment had indicated that 160 tonnes of brittle asbestos were originally present on the ship. The vessel was sent to French scrap firm Technopure, which, according to the French government that it had removed 115 tonnes of asbestos, leaving 45 tonnes on board. However, the French Defence Ministry subsequently announced that the landfill charged with disposal of the removed waste had only provided documentation accounting for 85 tonnes of asbestos. This threw into question whether the full 115 tonnes were taken out of the ship, or whether 30 tonnes remained in the Clemenceau over and above the 45 tonnes that were supposed to be on board. It is important to take note of another fact—Technopure had initially made a proposal to the SDIC for decontaminating the ship for 6.3 million Euros but subsequently at the request of the SDIC, a less expensive proposal valued at 3 million Euros was submitted, accepted by the SDIC and executed. Under the revised proposal only certain parts of the ship were covered for decontamination. The same company, Technopure, told the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) in January, that a minimum of 500 tonnes of asbestos contaminated materials were still on board and much of this could and should have been removed in France before sending it to be broken in India. Technopure also said that it had removed 70 tonnes of the material from the ship for which it has proof from the landfill but a lot more than 115 tonnes could have been removed without damaging the structure or the seaworthiness of the ship. Furthermore, environmental group Green-peace and several scientists suggest that there may be more asbestos on board than the 160 tonnes identified during the prelimi-nary assessment. They say that the true amount of asbestos on the ship could have been as high as 500 tonnes.
It is also possible that other carcinogenic hazardous wastes, including polychloric biphenyls (PCBs), are present on the ship. An NGO Basel Action Network (BAN) used a comparable US vessel to argue that the Clemenceau likely contained a high amount of material contaminated with PCBs. It also suggested that the transfer of the ship to India violated the Basel Convention’s stipula-tion forbidding signatories to undertake transboundary shipments of hazardous waste without assurances that the destination facility meets its definition of environmentally sound management.
Further proof that Clemenceau is and has been a toxic ship was given by sailors and mechanics who served on it. They now suffer from asbestois and various respiratory diseases. Several people have died. The story of asbestos in France is a scandal. By 2015 there will be 100,000 deaths due to asbestos poisoning.
Despite the fact that the dangers posed by asbestos were well known in the late 1970s, it was only in 1997 that France banned the substance after an intense pressure. There have been several high-profile anti-asbestos trials in France and a recent Senate report rapped the government for deliberately ignoring, under pressure from the asbestos lobby in the country, the dangers posed by the substance. The National Association for the Victims of Asbestos Poisoning in France and the shipyard workers unions have been calling for a full decontamination and dismantling of Clemenceau in France. For long, the workers’ unions have called for the creation of a specific site within a naval base where end-of-life warships could be disman-tled safely without damage to human lives or the environment. But the money interests took precedence over the lives of the workers.
Indian workers in the dock as well
Whether it is France or India, The lives of the workers have always been subservient to the greed for the profits. Alang yards have a long history of accidents, some of them fatal. Many of them have been caused by the presence of flammable materials on ships that are being dismantled, chemicals that should have been removed before the ship was sent there, according to both the Basel Convention and domestic law. Prior to the SCMC regulations, safety gear was practi-cally unheard of at the yards. Even now the safety equipments are minimal. The story of the workers is more or less the same—horror stories of disability and death among the Alang labourers who dismantle ships with their bare hands to earn a living. Predictably, many of them are not even aware that the old ships they are breaking were constructed using toxic substances. A study estimates that one in every four labourers in Alang is likely to contract cancer owing to workplace poisons. A common saying amongst the workers is, “Alang se Palang” which tragically conveys the fact that anyone who works in Alang will sooner or later end up in the hospital.
On top of this the job opportunities have also been continuously shrinking in Alang. The industry has been slipping into dol-drums for over a year. Up to December 2005, there were only 73 ships in Alang and about 4000 workers—a far cry from the yard’s record peak during 1997-98 when Alang employed over 40,000 workers. Business used to be good not just for the shipyard owners and their workers, but also for the number of ancilliary industries that were dependent on shipbreaking like oil re-processing units, steel re-rolling mills and number of shops which had sprung up along the coast to trade the items from the ships. But now the yard wears a gloomy look. Often the rules imposed by SCMC are made the whipping boy by the ship breakers for the killing of the trade at Alang. But the truth of the matter is that the policies of the state and central governments are to blame, mainly, the unfavourable duty structures, additional tax burdens etc. Also the tax concessions being given to the steel industry in Kutch mean that Alang steel cannot compete with Kutch steel in the market. It is not the SCMC regulations that are killing the industry but the policies of the government coupled with the unwillingness of the ship-breakers to spend from their profits and purchase the necessary decontamination equipment.
Clemenceau might have gone back for the time being but the issues involved are here to stay. Inspite of Chirac’s decision to bring the warship back to French waters for the duration of the legal processes in both countries, it could, in the foreseeable future, be sent back overseas for dismantling. Unless the workers and the citizens arise together, the interests of profits would always try and hold the lives and safety of the workers at ransom.



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