The Clemenceau test

Print edition : January 27, 2006

The asbestos-insulated decommissioned warship Clemenceau leaves Toulon, on December 21, 2005. - ERIC ESTRADE/AFP

India must refuse the toxic waste-infested French warship permission to enter its territorial waters. Hesitation on the issue will invite global ridicule and demonstrate the government's contempt for the life of Indian citizens and its servility to the toxic-waste lobby.

One can breathe a sigh of relief - if only that - at the decision of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes Management (SCMC) not to permit the decommissioned French aircraft-carrier Clemenceau to enter Indian waters until clarity is established about the amount of asbestos it has on board. To allow the ship loaded with toxic wastes to be dismantled at Alang in Gujarat, where she is headed, will open the floodgates to further imports of poisonous junk from the West, including discarded warships - with horrifying consequences for our workers' health and the environment.

Varying claims and estimates have been made about the amount of the asbestos that still remains in the vessel's engine, chimney, piping and wiring, ranging from 45 tonnes to 1,000 tonnes. So it appears only logical that the quantity be determined within a reasonable range before the SCMC makes its final recommendation, in two weeks' time.

Yet, appearances can be deceptive. They can also be disconcerting - if they suggest that there is something provisional, conditional or ambiguous about keeping Clemenceau out of India's waters. If India is even remotely serious about the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, there is no question of permitting the condemned ship even if it contains a fraction of the lowest estimate/claim of asbestos on board, in addition to the numerous other toxic materials that old ships carry, including contaminated oils and plastics, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), lead-acid batteries, bilge, and gases like ammonia. Article 2 of the Basel Convention is categorical about prohibiting the movement of waste meant for final disposal from the developed to developing countries.

It is not in dispute that asbestos (which produces silicosis and cancer on inhalation of its fibres), and PCBs, heavy metals and oil sludge are hazardous, indeed extremely toxic. Going by media reports, neither the French government nor SDIC, the Panama-registered company to which it sold Clemenceau for a mere 100,000 euros, claims that even a token attempt was made to decontaminate the ship of anything other than asbestos. Even more important, the entire ship is scrap.

As for asbestos, nobody claims that more than 115 tonnes was removed. If this is true, then going by the French Defence Ministry's estimates of Clemenceau's original inventory, 45 to 135 tonnes remain on board. According to Technopure, which was awarded the contract to remove the asbestos by SDIC - but which terminated it in disgust - the ship still has a huge 500 to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos on board. This quantity, embedded in, or enclosing, metal, plastics, resin, and a host of other materials, is frighteningly large.

However, beyond a (fairly low) point, quantities are irrelevant. Whether Clemenceau has 50 kg or 500 tonnes of asbestos is immaterial to the principle of the Basel treaty - namely, that the developed Global North must not dump its toxic waste on countries of the South; everything must be done to prevent this.

Therefore, it is unfortunate to see references to the "size" of the ship (and the "displacement" and soil damage it would cause) in the SCMC's briefings. (SCMC chairman G. Thyagarajan said: "A ship of that size and make would generate asbestos-laden dust that would harm the environment.") This confuses the central issue. So does the SCMP recommendation for a bank guarantee of Rs.80 crores (twice the value of the ship) in case the ship is, in the future, allowed into India. Surely, the Committee cannot invoke the Basel Convention and, in the same breath, speak of permitting the ship into Indian waters.

It is necessary to warn against such confusion because the SCMC's past role in respect of the Danish ship Kong Frederick, renamed Riky. This was illegally brought to India last April and junked at Alang - despite the urgings of the Danish Environment Minister that it be sent back so that both Denmark and India "can send a strong signal that neither... will accept export of environmental problems that could be solved locally, and that we... will not accept this kind of foul play... " At that time, Thyagarajan had thundered: Riky should be "mercilessly driven out of Indian sovereign territory without loss of time... [The] SCMC [takes] a serious ... view of the ship's breaking ... [it] should not have been allowed to enter Indian territorial waters at all." But the Riky was not thrown out. It was dismantled at Alang.

The forces of corporate greed, which drive the global toxic-waste trade, and the pro-toxic waste import lobby in the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), proved overwhelmingly powerful then. They may prevail again. This time around, MoEF Secretary Pradipto Ghosh, no less, has thrown his weight behind those who want to see Clemenceau dismantled in India. He is on record: "If Clemenceau comes to India, it will be completely within Indian and international laws. We have ship-breaking facilities and safety norms in place. There is absolutely no environmental danger."

THE line-up in the Clemenceau case is very different from Riky's. Unlike the Danish government, which tried to defend the Basel Convention, the French government has, to its abiding disgrace, decided to subvert it. It claims the Convention does not apply to "war material" like Clemenceau. So outrageously ridiculous is this contention, and so utterly violative of the letter and spirit of the treaty, that it does not deserve further discussion. The Convention applies to all North-to-South hazardous waste movements.

A mindset that seeks a military exception to an international treaty with a worthy purpose betrays a peculiar pathology. But then, the very naming of the aircraft-carrier after Georges Clemenceau reveals the same mindset. Clemenceau (1841-1929) was an ultra-nationalist and chauvinist who wanted to defeat Germany conclusively - to the point of crippling it permanently. As Prime Minister, he was the principal architect of the Treaty of Versailles, which inflicted humiliation upon Germany (and stoked an equally ultra-nationalist backlash, on which Hitler capitalised). Clemenceau wanted even harsher terms to be imposed on Germany and resented the fact that Woodrow Wilson resisted his pressure.

Such a mindset can be monumentally hypocritical and replete with double standards. The present French government, one of the most rightwing in recent history, has gone out of its way to dump Clemenceau upon India knowing well that the ship carries tonnes of asbestos - against which public opinion runs high in France. (The asbestos industry is only second to tobacco in the compensation it has had to pay to its victims the world over, running into billions of dollars.) Indeed, it flew a group of Indian journalists to France, as if to showcase its "concern" for the environment.

Yet, the same government barely three years ago fought a tough battle in the World Trade Organisation to have asbestos exports from Canada banned. France won the case, which was seen as a victory of environmentalism against the forces of profiteering mercantilism. The same government now trots out ludicrous arguments about India being a sovereign and responsible state - which surely knows how to protect its workers - as a deplorable excuse for violating an international treaty which it has ratified.

Even more condemnable is the Indian government's stance which encourages hazardous waste imports on largely specious and mutually contradictory grounds: a) that they are not "really" harmful; b) that India has an "adequate capacity" to handle them in an "environmentally sound" manner; c) that the waste-processing business generates income and employment.

India has been voluntarily importing all manner of toxic wastes, or receiving them unsolicited, including asbestos wastes (from Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe), metal waste, lead-acid batteries, waste plastics and used oils (which contain contaminants like PCBs, chlorinated solvents, heavy metals, and so on) - to name a few of 70-plus categories, running into millions of tonnes.

The toxicity of these wastes is not in dispute. The latest - and growing - addition to the import-list is e-waste, consisting of discarded computers and cellular phones. It is estimated that some 500 million tonnes of e-waste will have been generated between 1997 and 2007. A good deal of this is likely to find its way to the Global South. The U.S. alone has 315 to 680 million computers to junk, containing 2 billion kg of plastic, 0.5 billion kg of lead, 1 million kg of cadmium, and 0.5 million kg of chromium.

As for "environmentally sound" waste reprocessing, one only has to see hair-raising pictures from Alang. The ship-breaking "industry", if it can be called that, surpasses in wretchedness and brutality the horrors of the life of the poor in early industrial England described so memorably by Charles Dickens. Ship-breaking involves what might be called a confrontation or duel between desperately impoverished, anaemic, men armed with primitive tools, against the rotting carcasses of condemned ships full of corroded steel, rust, and heavy equipment ready to collapse.

The workers go about cutting and tearing the ship bit by bit with oxygen-LPG torches (acetylene is too expensive), crude hacksaws and hammers. Their working life can be as short as eight years. They risk falling from decks under which other men are working. Worse, the decks, or heavy boilers and engines, might fall on them. By the time the workers have finished tearing up the ship, many will have broken their limbs, sustained burns and breathed vast quantities of asbestos dust, carcinogenic fumes and gases like ammonia.

It seems obscene even to talk of "compensating" such labour with money - it should not be undertaken in the first place. But the wages at Alang do not even conform to the minimum stipulated in many States. Most of the workers, from Bihar or Orissa, are illiterate, malnourished and extremely poor. They live and work in hellish conditions. Leave alone "environmentally sound" technologies for decontamination, Alang lacks even toilets, washrooms and electricity. The workers live in shanties built with plastic and wood taken from contaminated ships.

Alang's ship-breakers make their millions (and more) on the bloodied backs of poor workers. The industry they run is irreformable. Alang does not and cannot have the minimum infrastructure needed even for the limited operation of partially removing asbestos, of the kind Technopure carried out on Clemenceau - leave alone facilities for the disposal of all the muck that comes out of discarded ships. If it is to be equipped with protective gear, special machinery (for instance, which avoids cutting asbestos which would crumble into inhalable fibres), and heavy material-handling gear, Alang would become unviable. The only reason it survives is huge North-South differences in costs - attributable to shameful labour conditions and the employer's willingness to inflict grievous harm upon the workers.

Ships like Clemenceau are a menace to the whole world. But the aircraft-carrier is, first and foremost, France's problem. France generated the waste. It must keep it. The shocking thing is that "emerging superpower" India lacks the courage to tell France that. It is prepared to demean itself and undermine its self-esteem in order to import poisonous junk from the West. This is not so much because of a lack of patriotic fervour as because of the enormous influence of the toxic-trade lobby, especially within the MoEF.

This raises a serious question about the Ministry, which is now the greatest defender of hazardous waste imports and such noble causes as India's "right" to pollute and consume resources without accepting limits on its greenhouse gas emissions (Frontline, January 13). Ever since the Department of Environment was established in the 1970s - and the MoEF in 1986 - India has witnessed a marked deterioration of its environment. The MoEF has failed on its core agenda of conservation of flora, fauna, forests and wildlife, prevention and control of pollution, afforestation, and protection of the environment.

Over the past two decades, India has lost at least 10 per cent of its virgin rainforest. Half our rivers have turned into sewers. Our cities have become unbearably polluted. Our biodiversity is steadily declining as monocultures grow and species disappear. The tiger is threatened with extinction. Our watersheds are choking with non-biodegradable plastic bags. Our vegetables contain huge amounts of pesticide residues.

The MoEF must be held at least partly, if not largely, responsible for this disgusting state of affairs. It has had no positive input into India's fuel, power and transportation policies. It has failed to oppose, in a single instance, environmentally unsound projects, including the Sardar Sarovar Project and the Tehri dam. It has never adequately defended vulnerable people against predatory projects. And now, it has become an active collaborator of one of the most egregious and dirty industries anywhere.

A good hard look at the MoEF raises many questions: Do we need it in the present form? Should it continue to be headed by bad or mediocre Ministers? Should it have the bulk of its committees packed with yes-men and people who think every new smokestack is cause for celebration?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often expressed his concern for the environment, albeit in abstract, general terms. If he wants to translate it into something concrete, he should start with the Clemenceau case and declare that India will never import toxic wastes and discarded ships - no matter what the short-term "benefits". This should be followed by a thorough revamping of the MoEF, its personnel and its committees. Clemenceau is a test case for India. The country cannot afford to fail it.

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