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India, the graveyard of toxic ships

Written By Krishna on Tuesday, August 14, 2012 | 4:36 AM

The Pioneer, Aug 11, 2012

We have become the world's largest ship-breaking nation, but it has come with environmental and security threats, says Gopal Krishna

The Supreme Court has recently allowed Exxon Valdez, which had caused one of the worst US oil spills in Alaska over two decades ago, to be dismantled in the country but required the owner to pay for disposal of any toxic materials found on the ship. The ship entered Indian waters in May this year to be broken down for valuable parts. This caused huge protests and even the apex court was moved to stop the ship from being dismantled in India without prior decontamination of hazardous wastes in the country of export.

In 2011-12, the country reclaimed its lost position as the world’s largest ship-breaking nation with its yards in Alang and elsewhere demolishing no less than 415 ships. Most ship-breaking companies in India, however, do not follow sufficient precautions, exposing workers and the environment to toxic materials. They have turned the beaches of Alang and Bhavnagar in Gujarat into poisonous holes. Sadly, the Government has done precious little to prevent the transformation of the country’s beaches into landfills for the hazardous wastes of the developed world.

From different developed countries dead ships full of hazardous substances like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), radioactive materials, asbestos and Ballast Water arrive at the Alang beach, which has become the largest ship recycling yard in the world. There are 173 plots to carry out the ship-breaking activities on the beach under the supervision of the Gujarat Maritime Board. Since 1982 till April 2008, 4,551 ships arrived in Alang for dismantling. The first end-of-life ship MV Kota Tenjong was stationed at Alang on February 13, 1983. After the September 2007 Supreme Court order, more than 1,200 end-of-life hazardous ships entered Indian waters for the purpose of disposal. A total of 5,924 end-of-life ships were permitted between 1982 and 2012.

The Union Steel Ministry was given the task to prepare the Code on Regulations for Safe and Environmentally Sound Ship Recycling. It has, however, failed to do so even after five years of the court order, unmindful of the death toll of migrant workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha in Alang. In 2011 alone, 28 workers got killed. The inquiries in such deaths are never made public.

On the recommendation of Prof MGK Menon-headed High Power Committee on Hazardous Wastes, appointed by the Supreme Court, a landfill was created for hazardous wastes generated at the Alang beach. Today, this landfill is filled up. But there is no data available as to the quantity of hazardous wastes which has been dumped. How much PCBs, radioactive and other hazardous materials have come to the country is not known. Even the extent of contamination of the Alang beach is not known. It is not understood how the ship-breaking activities continue till date when there is no landfill facility available.

Hazardous ships entering Indian territorial waters without prior consent and without prior decontamination must be sent back. Such ships must take the Defence Ministry’s clearance before entering Indian waters. In fact, given the sensitivity involved, the regulation of ship-breaking activity should be handed over to the Navy. Also, there is a need to investigate the adverse environmental and occupational health impacts of dismantling dead ships on fragile coastal environment of the Alang beach.

There’s also a security angle associated with the industry. According to intelligence reports, Pakistan-based underworld has a major stake in the ship-breaking industry in Gujarat. A Standing Monitoring Committee on Ship-breaking Yards at Alang in 2011 notes that the customs officials and the Gujarat Maritime Board are unable to verify whether the documents provided to them when the ship beaches at Alang are forged or not. Over 100 ship-breaking companies are active in Alang. Early this year, a team of 200 Income Tax officials cracked down on three of the biggest Alang-based companies.

If the underworld is involved in Alang, this is obviously a great threat to the the country’s security. India needs to wake up to both environmental and terror threats emanating from the ship-breaking industry.

The writer is a Delhi-based environmental activist associated with Toxics Watch Alliance
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