In troubled waters

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Rainbow Warrior at Mumbai port. - SHASHI ASHIWAL

Rainbow Warrior at Mumbai port. - SHASHI ASHIWAL

Greenpeace campaigners on board their ship Rainbow Warrior, on a Corporate Accountability tour, get into a conflict with the Indian authorities.

WHEN Rainbow Warrior began its tour of India in November, the international crew on board the ship expected the usual resistance and conflict that Greenpeace campaigners had come to expect from government and other authorities. But what greeted the team on their return to Mumbai from a visit to Gujarat appalled even the most experienced campaigner.

On the ship's return from the ship-breaking yards at Alang in Gujarat, it was at first denied entry into Mumbai port by the Customs authorities. For seven days the ship remained at outer anchorage, its 26 crew members, belonging to 14 different countries, stranded at sea with dwindling stocks of food and water. When the ship was finally allowed to dock, another shock awaited the crew. Foreign passport holders among them were denied permission to disembark on the grounds that they had violated the limitations of their tourist visas by indulging in activism that was against national interests. This, despite Greenpeace completing all formalities and paying penalties for alleged violations in Indian waters.

The reason for this unusual action lay in Greenpeace's Gujarat visit. Prior to visiting Alang, Greenpeace had obtained not only the necessary permissions but also the support of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). According to Greenpeace, the Minister had assured it full support and even promised action if it found any violations. However, the team was taken aback at the sequence of events when it reached Bhavnagar.

First, Cosmo Wassenaar, the ship's captain, noticed that his maritime charts did not denote the limits of Bhavnagar port. It is customary in such instances (rare though they are) for a ship to maintain a distance of at least five nautical miles from the port. Rainbow Warrior stayed at 5.6 nautical miles. Officials from the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) boarded the ship. Later at 11 p.m., Customs officers took away all documents, including the crucial port clearance papers that the ship had received while leaving Mumbai port. The activists were told that no agent was willing to represent them (a necessary procedure to get berthing and stevedoring facilities).

The next morning, the ship was asked to leave Indian waters. The reason given was that the GPCB had complained that the crew had lowered dinghies while nearing Bhavnagar and taken photographs. Greenpeace admitted this but said that they did not expect to be challenged since they were there with the full support of the MoEF. A fine was demanded and paid. It was initially $5,000, of which $2,000 was marked under the category `sundry'. After challenging the amount and the classification, Greenpeace finally paid Rs.1 lakh.

Rainbow Warrior stayed in international waters outside Bhavnagar for about a fortnight. Then the ship returned to Mumbai after it realised that the Gujarat government would not cooperate. Back in Mumbai, the ship was told that permission to berth would be given subject only to clearances from the Mumbai Port Trust, Customs, Coast Guard, the Ministry of Shipping and the MoEF - an extraordinary procedure, to say the least, but apparently prompted by the fact that the Bhavnagar port authorities were not only in illegal possession of the port clearance papers but had effectively cut off any possibility of Greenpeace retrieving the papers by relegating the ship to international waters. Seemingly it was an unsuccessful tour for Rainbow Warrior. But Shailendra Yashwant, its campaign director, pointed out: "While we were waiting in the international waters, not a single ship went into Alang." He also added: "Oddly enough, after we left, 17 ships were beached all of a sudden."

The team also notched up a `first`. While near Alang it spotted `Genova Bridge' being beached for scrapping. Genova Bridge, owned by V Ships Commercials, London, was more than 30 years old and was built at a time when there was no legislation on the use of toxic materials in the construction of ships. Greenpeace said that the ship was a mass of toxic materials and in all likelihood would have toxic materials like asbestos, waste oil, sludge, the carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyl, and Tri Butyl.

Greenpeace reported the beaching of Genova Bridge to the MoEF, which directed the GPCB to inspect the vessel. It was only at this stage that the GPCB acknowledged the presence of toxic materials on the ship. More importantly, it produced a 200-page document on the toxic substances on the ship. "Highly unusual," according to Martin Besieux, ship-breaking campaigner, who said that a "one pager was the norm in which the GPCB usually noted that there was no radioactivity and no toxic cargo on the ship. At least they now understand that toxic substances are inherent in the structure of the ship." Though permission was granted to break Genova Bridge, it came with the provision that the guidelines for worker safety be followed.

According to Greenpeace, the GPCB has directed the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) to remove asbestos and other hazardous waste on board Genova Bridge and store it at a landfill in the hinterlands. The act is unlawful and irresponsible because it does not address the illegality of the import of the hazardous waste. "For one step forward, the GPCB has taken three steps back. The GPCB has continuously violated the Polluter Pays principle and routinely assists the polluters by taking on the hazardous and pricey job of decontamination upon itself at state expense. Instead, the GPCB should immediately contact V shipping International to come to Alang and execute the clean-up, as they are liable for the safe removal and re-import of asbestos and other hazardous waste on board Genova Bridge according to the Basel Convention and the Indian Supreme Court's directives," said Ramapati Kumar, Greenpeace campaigner.

The GPCB has clearly ignored the Supreme Court order on Hazardous Waste Management Rules (Amendment, 2003), which clearly directs that the "SPCBs (State pollution control boards) should ensure that the ship should be properly decontaminated by the shipowner before breaking." The same order also reiterates the ban on the import of 29 items, including waste asbestos (dust and fibre) following the Government of India ban on import of asbestos waste (dust/fibre) in 1998.

Rainbow Warrior was in India on a three-part Corporate Accountability tour, a programme aimed at highlighting the apathy of companies to environmental responsibilities. Phase One was in Alang, where toxic ships were identified. Phase Two was in Mumbai, where the emphasis was on programmes commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. The third phase was in Kochi, where Greenpeace planned to expose the poisoning of the Periyar river. According to the watchdog organisation, the river is being poisoned by Hindustan Insecticides Limited, apparently the sole DDT factory in the world. The third phase was carried out without the participation of Rainbow Warrior since the ship was forced to sail to Sri Lanka.

So what exactly is the reason for this attack on Greenpeace? Quite simply, it is the penalty that the watchdog has to pay for highlighting the marine pollution and health risks at Indian shipbreaking yards. A Greenpeace press release says: "We've issued a strong challenge to the shipping industry, reminding them of their liabilities in ship-breaking yards all over the world. They have responded by exerting pressure on related authorities, and have tried to stop us from continuing our work. When they start to fight us, we know we've made a difference!"

There are certain incongruities in this entire episode of Greenpeace's first phase. Greenpeace's actions are nothing more than an insistence that the existing rules be followed. Its actions are supported by the Supreme Court's directives on the handling of hazardous wastes and on ship-breaking. They are also in accordance with the voluntary Code of Practice on Ship Recycling of the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) and the Basel Convention.

Furthermore, the organisation has received open support from the MoEF. The Indian government not only backs the IMO's guidelines but, along with Turkey, has been pushing for them to be made mandatory instead of voluntary. The Mumbai Port Trust (MPT) has permitted studies of Mumbai's ship-breaking yards, and the Iron Steel Scrap and Shipbreakers Association of India has issued a letter dated November 12 in which its president P.S. Nagarsheth has said: "It has become absolutely necessary that the [IMO] resolution and guidelines make it mandatory for ship owners to comply with the said code. At least `gas free for hot work' must be made a must before delivery of a ship to the ship recycling yard. This should not pause [sic] any problem as the Code has been finalised by the owner's own associations... This will bring uniformity and level playing field amongst all ship recycling countries." The reference to the `gas free for hot work' exemplifies the crisis in the industry. The law requires that ship owners clear pipes of gas of end-of-life ships. The requirement is frequently ignored.

When workers at yards cut open pipes using hot-gas-fuelled blow torches, there can be an explosion resulting in death or severe injury. Prior to scrapping, the ship must have a clean certificate from the Department of Explosives. The certificate is entitled Gas Free Certificate for Hot Work. Below it is typed: `This certificate is not meant for ship breaking or dismantling activities'. Thus, the ship owner and the authorities concerned cover their culpability.

A new law passed by the European Union bans single-hull ships from docking in European ports. Given the international nature of shipping, it is likely that these ships will be scrapped rather than ship-owners willing to face the problems of looking for location-specific cargo as a means of avoiding European ports. It is even more likely that these ships with their toxic structures will end up on Indian beaches.

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