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Unlikely Saviours Visit Toxic Alang Beach

Written By mediavigil on Saturday, February 28, 2009 | 3:29 AM

Despite IMO’s lip service Alang remains a widow maker

Sans any civil society or trade union representative, a 20 member delegation of UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) visited ship breaking recycling yard at Alang, Bhavnagar on 25 February, 2009 under the supervision of the shipbreakers and Indian officials to take stock of the ongoing contamination of the Alang beach and its adverse impact on environmental and occupational health. Oblivious of the reports suggesting how four out of five workers in Alang suffer from serious chemical hazards, IMO is preparing an international treaty on ship breaking that seeks to manitain a status quo in order to pander to the interests of the shipping industry.

Industry representatives painted a rosy picture of the Alang yard before IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) even as the shipbreakers and the Gujarat Maritime Board continue their embrago on both national and international media which stops journalists and researchers from entering the Alang yards to ascertain for themselves as to whether or not there is any improvement in the “grave yards” of Alang. The current paper works do not provide any hope of minimizing human health cost of migrant and casual workers from Bihar, UP, Jharkhand and Orissa. Alang has earned a reputation of being a widow maker and mere lip service by IMO cannot alter it.

The delegation paid a stage managed visit to the heavily contaminated beaches of Alang. They were misled by Leela ship breaking company and the Implementation Officer, marine environment division, IMO to desist from undertaking any remediation of the Alang’s marine environment. The team was shown a mythical state of art technique of removal of asbestos containing material from ship’s parts and pipes in negative pressure chamber. The delegation comprised of members from Bank of International Settlement Convention Secretariat, International Labour Organisation, World Bank and European Commission and belong to countries like Greece, Japan, UK, France, Denmark, Norway, USA, Germany, Bulgaria and New Zealand.

Communities living in the vicinity of Alang are demanding that IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) must ensure decontamination of the beaches and suggest a phase out period for the industry to move away from a fragile coastal environment like Alang beach in order to protect the health of the local community and their ecosystem. The wrongful act of having polluted and contaminated Alang beach in an era when there was no environmental sensitivity must be undone. MEPC’s failure to address this problem and allow status quo will defeat the very purpose for which the committee has been constituted. Protection of the marine environment of Alang is the fundamental reason for MEPC’s existence.

Even as more than 90 ships are langusinging and are illegally beached in Alang, a comprehensive Code on Ship Recycling Regulations is still under preparation as per the order of the Supreme Court. The apex court appoited Inter-Ministerial Committee on Shipbreaking under Union Ministry of Steel has already circulated the draft to all stakeholders for comments.

What is very status quoist is the manner in which Alang beach is allowed to be contaminated just because the shipbreaking activity commenced in 1983 in the pre-Environment Protection Act, 1986 era. The shipbreaking activity to be truly sustainable must be taken off the beach and the Alang beach must be remediated and restored for posterity as is done in the developed world. The current practice of beaching method seems economically viable due to cost externalization of pollustion and adverse health impact.

The proposed convention fails to address the four fatal flaws of the beaching method for ship breaking: cranes cannot be placed alongside ship, lack of access by emergency vehicles and equipment, no possibility for containment and coastal zone, intertidal zone is environmentally sensitive and managing hazardous wastes in the intertidal zone can never be environmentally sound.

In the Indian context, officials who are negotiating at the IMO level have so far failed to communicate categorically to the Marine Environment Protection Committee of IMO that their Ship Recycling Convention so far does not meet the bar of equivalent level of control and we cannot accept a step backwards. Environmental health, Labour and human groups have been demanding remediation of Alang beach of its toxic contamination because of ship-breaking activity to retrieve and protect the fragile coastal environmental and public health of communities and their livelihoods.

While European Union has implemented Basel ban and apply it on ships meant for scrapping under EU Waste Shipment Regulation of the European Parliament but implementation of the regulation has not been effective in regulating ship going for recycling under the pretext of trading/repairs. This loophole must be plugged to stop secret sales. It is not clear in such cases as to who is the exporting country; whether the country where the ship is registered or whether the country where the ship owning company is registered or whether the country where the ship management company is registered. Making the consent of exporting and importing countries mandatory for such sales will help to plug this loophole.

It is beginning to appear that instead of trying to get their regulation accepted by IMO, EU is under tremendous pressure from its shipping industry and ship owners to get rid of its own regulation by allowing it to be superceded by the proposed IMO Convention.

It is noteworthy that prior to their visit Directorate General of Shipping organised a two day workshop (23-24 February, 2009) in Mumbai for them and the representatives of Gujarat Maritime Board, Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Ship Breakers' Associations, DG Shipping, Ship Owners' Association, Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of Steel, Ministry of Labor and Central Pollution Control Board.

The industry in its submission has contended that all hazardous materials which are not required for final voyage be removed before proceeding on the final voyage to the recycling yard. The roles and responsibility of Cash Buyers of the ships must be adequately revealed and their corporate veil must be pierced. Most of the ship owners are one ship companies and registered in tax haven states and flags of convenience. Most of the ship owners become untraceable after sale and delivery of the ship. Identification and registration of ship owner should be mandatory which shall also include temporary ship owners. Providing name and address of signatories of all documents must be made mandatory.

While no trade union or civil society representative participated in the workshop, interestingly, at the workshop the Indian shipbreaking industry revealed that it is requesting Government of India government not to ratify the proposed international treaty on shipbreaking/ship recycling because the draft IMO treaty has been prepared under the influence of the ship owners and ship owning countries designed to transfer the obligation of observing the entire regulations on ship recycling countries. The Indian industry feels that the role of IMO be restricted till the ship remains a ship or a floating structure. Once it is no more a floating structure, the role of IMO should cease. Working at the yard should be addressed by ILO while handling of hazardous waste should be based on Basel Convention norms. It is critical of the treaty because it does not assign definite role to ship owners, builders, classification societies or suppliers. The only role prescribed for ship owners is to submit the inventory of hazardous materials. It does not prescribe remedy or precautions to be taken against environment damage resulting from ship recycling operations particularly of oil seepage.

Indeed if one compares the draft IMO treaty and the Indian regulations it is clear that the former is quite regressive and not foward looking. Indian regulation which does not permit ships meant dismantling without gas-free for hot work and does not exclude war ships and government vessels. The relaxation on these two issues in IMO regulations will act as a loophole to divert ships for recycling from regulated countries to non-regulated countries.

Last year too, a IMO team visited the same plot no 2 of Leela shipbreaking company besides Plot No 79 of Shree Ram Vessel Pvt Ltd and Plot No 13 of M/s Baijnath Melaram Ship Breakers in Alang and Directorate General of Shipping conducted a workshop in January 2008 for them. There seems something amiss about the intimacy between GMB, Leela ship ship breaking company and some of the IMO officials visiting India.

Unmindful of Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order till date there is no registration of workers and there is no record of their occupational health status, non-complaince with the apex court’s direction with regard to prior decontamination of hazardous materials and wastes in the country of export is quite manifest. Notably, the proposed Convention does not include these directions that are mandatory for the protection ofenvironmental and occupational health. Biodiversity of the Alang’s marine environment and adverse impact on its ecological status has not been factored in the ongoing shipbreaking activity.

Gujarat Maritime Board has conistently misled the apex court, inspection teams and international observers by contending that “there is no pollution level increased in last few years, this means that even if activities of ship recycling are increased over last 10 years, there is no threat on local biodiversity as supported by GPCB. GMB in turn explained that due to high tide, strong current and high turbidity do not support primary life systems at Alang.”
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