Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

Clemenceau's departure to India for breaking causes a storm of protests not just because of the asbestos it contains; the French warship symbolises the unequal relationship between the developing South and the rich North.

V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

THE storm over the decommissioned former French aircraft-carrier Clemenceau, which left the French shores on December 31, 2005, for being dismantled at a shipbreaking yard at Alang, Gujarat, may pass, but the issues surrounding it may force it to remain at sea longer than expected.

A worker at the shipbreaking yard may not distinguish between Clemenceau and another life-on-end ship. But the well-informed citizenry in India and France know Clemenceau symbolises all that is wrong between the developing South and the rich North. As the controversy over the 27,300-tonne ship, said to be carrying tonnes of toxic waste, continued to rage, the moral and ethical dimension of the Clemenceau debate became loud and clear: Is it acceptable that France avoids the high costs and responsibility of properly disposing of the hazardous substances contained in the ship, and expose the cheap labour available in developing countries such as India to serious health risks in the process of dismantling and decontaminating it?

G. Thyagarajan, Chairman of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC), set the tone of the debate during his interaction with the media on January 20, as the SCMC heard the various parties to the controversy in New Delhi to decide whether the ship could be permitted to enter the territorial waters of India. Clemenceau, he said, raised wider issues: "Asbestos has been banned in 26 countries, including France. Therefore, is this ship necessary for us? Should we add hazardous substances from outside? Why not break it there in France? Why can't Alang be the yard for shipbuilding rather than shipbreaking? Should we spend our money to buy somebody else's problem? Are we to perform the last rites of dead ships here?" It appeared that for the 10-member committee comprising some of India's leading scientists, environmentalists and bureaucrats, the question of national pride was more important than commercial considerations, which had tilted the scales in favour of shipbreaking. Thyagarajan brought the issue of national pride within the realms of rational decision-making. "We have to examine each of these questions individually in an integrated and holistic manner," he explained.

The SCMC was reluctant to abandon its sense of neutrality and fairness until it examined the merits of the submissions before it. Set up by the Supreme Court in Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources Policy vs Union of India and Others,1995, the SCMC has the court's mandate to ensure that the generation of hazardous waste was kept to the minimum and such waste was handled properly in every State. In the Clemenceau issue, it has time till February 13, the date fixed by the Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Arijit Pasayat and S.H. Kapadia for hearing the matter.

The Pasayat-Kapadia Bench, in its observations on the issue on April 16, 2004, was more vocal and candid than the SCMC Chairman. It asked: "When the French government had not permitted the ship to be broken there, why should we allow the ship to come to India? Whether breaking the ship will result in pollution or not is immaterial. The best thing will be to ask the ship to go back from where it started." The Bench recorded the assurance given by the Shipping Decommissioning Industry Corporation (SDIC), the Panama-registered company that acquired the ship, that it would not permit Clemenceau to enter the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone, that is, 220 nautical miles from India's baseline, until the court took a decision on the basis of the SCMC report.

It is clear that the SCMC's decision with regard to granting permission to the ship to enter Indian waters is not going to be easy. As per Thyagarajan's own admission, the SCMC is confused about the volume of the hazardous substance on Clemenceau. Not only is it faced with conflicting estimates of asbestos present in the ship, but it has to contend with different assessments about the possibility of decontaminating it safely. Further, it has to resolve the question whether France is guilty of violating the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, which both France and India have ratified. The SCMC also has to explain its stand on the asbestos-laden Danish ship Ricky, which was allowed to be dismantled at Alang last year, despite a clear request from the Denmark government to India to return the ship to Denmark.

Clemenceau came into service in 1961. It took part in most French naval operations. It sailed the seven seas almost 50 times, logging more than a million nautical miles, and spent 3,125 days at sea and performed 70,000 catapult launches. More than 20,000 sailors served on board the 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.

According to a press release issued by the French government, a contract for the dismantling and removal of asbestos from Clemenceau was first signed on October 20, 2003, and was then complemented by an amendment on June 23, 2004, between France and the SDIC. The fact that the release mentions only asbestos and not other hazardous substances is significant. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), the ship may contain substantial amounts of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the paints, gaskets, insulation and wiring. Likewise, heavy metals such as lead are expected to be present in the materials on board the ship, it says. Martin Besieux of Greenpeace Internationale told the SCMC on January 20: "Full destruction and not disposal or recycling of PCBs is required under the Stockholm Convention, but India does not possess such PCB destruction technology."

Technopure, a company recognised by the French government for the purpose of asbestos removal, initially made a proposal to the SDIC for decontaminating the ship for 6.3 million euros. The proposal was for decontaminating all the visible, accessible and friable parts of the ship. However, at the request of the SDIC, a less expensive proposal valued at 3 million euros was submitted, accepted by the SDIC, and executed. Under this revised proposal, only certain parts of the ship were covered for decontamination. Neither the French government nor the SDIC explained the rationale for this revised proposal.

Technopure told the SCMC on January 6 at its meeting in Mumbai that it removed 70 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated waste from the ship. It stated that there was still a minimum of 500 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated materials remaining on board. It also informed the SCMC that much of this material could and should have been removed in France before sending it to be broken up.

The French government on the contrary, claimed that Technopure had admittedly removed 106 tonnes of asbestos. Since Technopure raised disputes, and did not complete the assignment, the work was assigned to another company, Prestosid, which, it claimed, removed 8.5 tonnes of asbestos.

The press release further claimed that most of the asbestos-removal operations were carried out in France between October 5, 2004, and September 2005. What followed was fudging of figures and facts by the French government. It claimed that 115 tonnes of asbestos had been removed, leaving behind a balance of only 45 tonnes of mostly non-friable asbestos (which is not visible and not accessible without dismantling the ship). The 45 tonnes of "asbestos-containing products" that remained, the French government claimed, constituted less than 0.2 per cent of a mass of over 22,000 tonnes, that is, the weight of the ship. When the SCMC referred to the removal of 98 per cent of asbestos, it did not mean the proportion of the weight of the asbestos to the weight of the ship, but the proportion of the weight of removable asbestos to the total weight of asbestos on the ship.

The French government contradicted Technopure's claims by suggesting that the weight of asbestos and asbestos products on the Clemenceau's hull in 2003 was estimated at 215 tonnes. This figure was rounded up to 220 tonnes for safe margin. The initial phase of decontamination of the vessel, it claimed, showed that the funnel lagging was made of fibre glass and not asbestos. As the weight of the funnel was 60 tonnes, this was deducted from the original estimate of the weight of the asbestos.

This admission by the French government is proof enough that it has failed to meet its own commitment to the SCMC through the importer that 98 per cent of the asbestos-contaminated materials would be removed. If its claim that only 45 tonnes of asbestos is yet to be decontaminated is true, then it constitutes 28 per cent of the original quantity of asbestos on the ship. Paris has no explanation for this contradiction.

The French government's press release also claimed that for the first time a preliminary, extensive cleaning up preceded the dismantling of the ship. "Moreover, the hull of Clemenceau contains neither hydrocarbons, nor PCBs, nor any polluting agent," it said. This bland assertion is, on the face of it, questionable. If the hull of the ship admittedly has some residual asbestos, how could it be said to be free of any polluting agent?

It is to remove such ambiguities that the Supreme Court's interim order in the Research Foundation case (2003) relating to shipbreaking makes it mandatory for the ship's owner to provide a complete inventory of hazardous waste on board the ship. It also holds that no breaking permission should be granted without such an inventory. Neither the French government nor the SDIC has so far made such an inventory public. The removal of residual asbestos, the press release says, will be carried out under the supervision of the SDIC, which aims at ensuring the respect of the European regulations concerning workers' security, hygiene and the protection of the environment. For this purpose, a complementary training of Indian engineers who would supervise the asbestos removal site was required.

The French government does not also disclose the nature of the SDIC's dispute with Technopure. Technopure has claimed that it backed out of the contract with the SDIC because it found that the SDIC did not meet the part of the contract relating to bringing engineers belonging to the proposed Indian buyer of the ship to France for training in decontamination. Technopure apparently broke the confidentiality clause of the contract, in the public interest. Two engineers of Shree Ram Vessels Scrap Pvt. Limited. and three from the Luthra Group received qualifying training on the removal of friable asbestos in Mulhouse, France, in March 2005, and practical training at the Toulon shipyard in August 2005 under the supervision of the SDIC and Prestosid. It is not clear why this training could not take place before Technopure backed out of the contract. Instead of answering this question, the French government accused Technopure of leaving the job of decontamination incomplete following a conflict with the SDIC.

Inexplicably, the French government, in its deposition before the SCMC on January 20, cited old permissions granted by the Indian authorities that were already superceded by the SCMC's directive not to permit the ship for breaking. Thus it cited a letter dated June 1, 2004, issued by the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), which stated that authorisation had already been granted to M/s Shree Ram Vessels Scrap Private Limited, and another letter, dated May 25, 2004, by the Embassy of India to the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, certifying that permission for dismantling would be granted by the GPCB. Another letter, dated May 9, 2005, issued by the GPCB withdrawing its earlier order dated May 2, 2005, was also used by the French government to show that it had permitted the ship to enter India.

It appears that the French government completely ignored the vital correspondence carried in the SCMC's website. As early as January 2005, the SCMC received complaints regarding the possible movement to Alang of Clemenceau, indicating that it might contain unexpected levels of asbestos that would generate a large quantity of asbestos waste on demolition. Based on such complaints, the SCMC, at its eighth meeting, held that the ship would not be allowed to enter the country if it carried asbestos waste as cargo. In the event the ship made its way to Alang after decontamination and if any asbestos was generated during the breaking of the ship, the same must be handled and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner, it said. (Thyagarajan told Frontline that the SCMC might recommend phasing out asbestos from the country.)

In March 2005, members of the SCMC sub-committee visited Kandla port and Alang and filed a detailed report of their discussions with M/s Shree Ram Vessels Scrap Ltd. In particular, the sub-committee indicated that the company was yet to submit several documents, namely, the report of decontamination at Toulon, from where the ship set sail and the certificate from the French authorities that the ship had been decontaminated and did not violate the provisions of the Basel Convention. In addition, it said, the Ministry of External Affairs should procure from the French Embassy all the relevant documents relating to the ship, including an official statement from the French government that in its view and that of its own experts, 98 per cent of the hazardous material had been removed and the balance would be recovered at Alang under the guidance and coordination of the SDIC as well. Obviously, the French government did not fulfil any of these conditions satisfactorily before letting the ship leave for India.

The French government's claim that Clemenceau did not violate national and international laws also has come in for severe criticism from Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network (see separate story).

The French government has apparently offered to the SCMC to send its engineers to India to supervise the decontamination work and even take back the wastes. But apprehensions remain. If the volume of residual pollutants is huge, the capacity of Indian workers to decontaminate them even under French supervision and with safety equipment - without sufficient training and awareness - is doubtful.

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