`We get the waste and pay for it'

Print edition : February 10, 2006


Interview with Claude Alvares, member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes.

Dr. Claude Alvares received his Ph.D. from the Technische Hogeschool, Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, in 1976. After his professional education, he quit university and started working on environmental issues. The Director of the Goa Foundation, an environmental monitoring action group, which has filed over 80 public interest petitions in various High Courts and the Supreme Court, he is also a member of the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Alvares, a member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Hazardous Wastes, spoke to Lyla Bavadam on the issues raised by Clemenceau. Excerpts:

What is the main issue at stake? Can France impose a confidentiality clause about revealing the extent of asbestos remaining on Clemenceau?

I do not think that France can impose a confidentiality clause. We in India are bound by the orders of the Supreme Court. We can therefore demand proper information about whether a ship has been adequately decontaminated. If we are not convinced, we can take necessary action or inform the apex court and it can take the necessary action. Since the apex court is now seized of the matter, we shall send it a detailed report.

There is little doubt that France has a history of trying desperately to get rid of the ship because decontaminating it in Europe would be frightfully expensive. The present deal has France riding high: It contracts with the Ship Decommissioning Industry Corporation [SDIC] to have the ship decontaminated and broken for 100,000 euros. The SDIC pays 3 million euros to Technopure to get the ship partially decontaminated of asbestos in France. The SDIC contracts the ship to an Indian ship-breaker for 8 million euros. France rids itself of the liability of looking after the toxic elements of the ship, which include lead, asbestos, tritium [radioactive element] and polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs]. The Third World gets the waste and, worse, pays for it as well in foreign exchange.

In these circumstances, France has an advantage in not disclosing the quantities on board the ship. It says it has removed 115 tonnes and it is 90 per cent of the asbestos waste and that there are only 45 tonnes left. But 115 tonnes is not 90 per cent of 160 tonnes. They have said nothing about lead and PCBs embedded in the solid matrix of the ship. We are yet to receive a detailed inventory of the toxic elements lodged in the ship. We are also very limited in our interpretation of what constitutes asbestos containing material [ACM]. The Europeans include everything, we only include insulation. So we handle the other material without restrictions, which is absurd.

Why did not the SCMC take a decision on January 6 itself instead of asking for more time? What additional information was required for the SCMC to take a decision?

Greenpeace and Technopure are parties that might have their own interest in presenting their data to the SCMC. We have not heard the legitimate owners of the ship [the French government, the SDIC] or the importers [Shree Ram]. They may have data which prove that Greenpeace or Technopure are incorrect. So we need to listen to both sides and make up our minds. This is on fact, not on law.

The law issue has been settled by the apex court, though there is no restriction on the SCMC from making a recommendation to the apex court that the issues relating to ship-breaking be reviewed. Two weeks time has been given to all parties to produce data regarding what is on the ship. After that, if there is still inadequate data, the SCMC could recommend sending the vessel back to France. The full SCMC will make a proper decision after listening to all the facts. We are all keeping an open mind.

Rejecting the ship outright would have set a precedent that India does not want contaminated vessels. Instead, would debating the issue send out the message that India will deal with toxic materials on a case-by-case basis rather than on the basis of principle?

There are still serious issues. The apex court has not banned ship-breaking. It based its decision on the Menon Committee report, which only recommended that severe environmental conditions be imposed before ship-breaking could continue. India [as a government] has taken the view that ships destined for demolition are not waste covered by the Basel Convention. These are the contexts in which the SCMC has to act.

The last ship we got into a controversy about was Ricky. We got a report saying the asbestos waste generated on demolition was 222 kg. But the Danish authorities claimed it had 17 tonnes of ACM on board. We would like to re-examine this aspect now. We took serious note of Ricky and then Clemenceau because we found that in the case of Ricky, the Danish government objected to the export of the ship, and in the case of Clemenceau, we had indication that decontamination was not done as required by the Supreme Court order and the directions of the SCMC. These are fairly logical decisions. Other ships continue to come to Alang, but follow the norms given in the apex court order.

Would an immediate decision banning the ship's entry into India have not sent out the correct message to Indian ship-breaking companies that the government is concerned about the rights of workers at such yards?

That would be a double standard for Indian industry: one at Alang, one outside Alang in the country as a whole. Asbestos is a legitimate material in India and several new asbestos units are in fact planned. Here again, as distinct from Europe and the United States, India has decided to continue with asbestos. This is again a policy decision. The SCMC cannot change that, though it can recommend such a change. I do not think the conditions in asbestos units in India are any better or worse than the conditions at Alang. Because of our insistence on safety standards, Shree Ram says it has in fact imported asbestos decontamination chambers and worker equipment. Only use and monitoring of use would tell whether it is adequate. Because of the apex court order, the number of deaths has marginally decreased. Now any ship-breaker has to deposit Rs.5 lakhs on the death or serious injury of any person on the plot. This was not there earlier and is a serious deterrent. The SCMC has installed several measures at Alang - a secured landfill constructed to international standards, worker safety and identity cards, separate places where hazardous waste has to be stored when it is removed from the ship, and so on.

We have now begun to insist that no asbestos should be removed from the ships, but that equipment, piping, and so on, which contain asbestos or is coated with asbestos, should be removed from the ship as a whole piece, then brought to the shore. Only then should the asbestos be removed, that too in a decontamination chamber. We have recommended that it be located at the secured landfill facility and all asbestos decontamination from all ships be done in one place so that it can be safely monitored from the point of view of workers' health. There are still measures that need to be taken, including maintaining the medical records of workers exposed to asbestos. As a result of all these measures, however, the number of active ship-breaking plots has come down from 180 to fewer than 50.

In September 2005, the MoEF said there was "no consensus under international conventions on the guidelines regarding ship-breaking and so the activity is being regulated by the Supreme Court". Clearly, this is tantamount to giving full authority to the SCMC. Does the reality of the process reflect this?

The MoEF is the last institution in this country that is concerned about the environment. I make this statement with reference to not just ship-breaking but other issues as well. Right now G. Thyagarajan, Chairman of the SCMC, has written to the Ministry about the ship, informing it that the import of the ship would be a violation of the apex court order dated 14.10.2003.

MoEF Secretary Pradipto Ghosh indicated that India could handle the ship. And the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) actually seems keen to take on the ship, but for formality's sake has asked Gujarat Environment Protection and Infrastructure Ltd. for a toxicity report. Would you have any idea how such a report could be prepared since the very basis - the amount of asbestos - is unknown?

Your guess is as good as mine. If Ghosh's argument is accepted, we can accept all the waste oil of the world because we have capacity to handle that as well. We can accept lead acid batteries as well, because we have furnaces that can deal with lead safely. But we cannot because we are a signatory to Basel and because the apex court in 1997 banned all wastes banned by Basel and to be banned or proposed to be banned under Basel. So the apex court pre-empted any position the Union government could take in the matter. The import of asbestos waste is banned under Basel. It is also banned under the Hazardous Waste Rules notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, for India.

What makes the French authorities think that they can get away with violating laws, or do they think it is not a violation?

The French moved the WTO [World Trade Organisation] to get their ban on asbestos import from Canada upheld. They also know that the ship's decontamination is expensive, even for the French government. The irony is that the French amended their Constitution recently and inserted clauses for environment protection that India inserted in 1976. Their President is also promoted as an ecologist. So how does this reconcile with sending a ship with unknown quantities of asbestos, PCBs and lead to India where it will be dumped at costs that do not reflect the costs of workers' health and environment? The first estimate given by Technopure for asbestos decontamination was 6.3 million euros. They were asked for a cheaper proposal. They submitted one for 3 million euros. That needs to be explained. Is there at least 3.3 million euros worth decontamination remaining to be done on that ship? This is not including the PCBs lodged in the ship's body.

France's attitude is contrary to that of Denmark in the April 2005 incident when a commercial Danish ship illegally left Danish waters for Alang. Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard wrote to A. Raja, her Indian counterpart, telling him to refuse entry to the ship since it was illegal traffic under Basel. Any comment or observations on this responsible action?

I would like to know what actions the Danes have taken pursuant to the ship leaving their shores illegally. Have the ship owners been prosecuted? Have they filed proceedings under Basel Convention for violation of its provisions, since under the Convention if one country considers something a waste, all the other countries dealing with it also have to consider it a waste. I hate to think that sometimes a lot of noise is made when the ship leaves European shores, but no actions commensurate with that are taken to prevent the ship from going to India. So they get the best of both worlds.

What was the basis of the decision to allow Ricky into India? Is the distinction - in-built asbestos is permissible while cargo asbestos is not - acceptable? How can it be justified?

The issue has never been cargo. The authorities in India make a lot of noise that they have inspected the ship and found no hazardous cargo in it. This is a response to Greenpeace and others who keep loosely attacking these ships on the grounds that they are "laden" with toxic wastes [meaning they are part of the vessel structure]. This game has gone on for some time now. At the SCMC, we are fully aware that there will never be any cargo that is hazardous on these ships because we have installed a reasonably reliable procedure to ensure these ships enter the country without any goods aboard. The Customs, in fact, board every ship destined for Alang. The issue has always been the fact that these ships contain a lot of asbestos and other toxic materials in their solid matrix. I was wholly unhappy with the Ricky affidavit filed on behalf of the SCMC. Others in the SCMC agreed with me. I made a lot of noise in the SCMC about it because that affidavit was prepared by the MoEF and the GPCB, both of whom are respondents in the petition on hazardous wastes, and filed in the name of the SCMC. We thought our objections would be taken on board. They were not. In fact, none of the Ricky documents was shown to any of the SCMC members, and neither was the application filed by Ms. M. Dutta in the Ricky matter. That affidavit actually represents the position of the government and not the SCMC. That is the reason why the SCMC is now dealing with the apex court directly in the case of the Clemenceau.

What are the expenses involved in decontamination? Can India afford it? Do we have the technology?

The SDIC claims it will be importing a decontamination chamber for asbestos removal for the Clemenceau at a cost of Rs.2.5 crores. On the other ship-breaking yards, there is no use of such equipment because they do not have it. The expenses are far lower than the European costs. I do not think we can match the use of equipment and record keeping of the companies doing asbestos removal in France. I have seen some evidence of such record keeping. We cannot do that here. So we are saving the Europeans costs in this manner.

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