Efforts on to transfer ship owners’s burden to shipbreakers in India

Notes for the MMR Conference on shipbreaking industry
19 July, 2008

Little has changed in Bangladesh and India in terms of occupational safety and environmental protection in the ship breaking industry. In Bangladesh, 4 more wokers died on the Shipbreaking beaches in June 2008. Rate of accident in India is quite alarming too even as per official statistics. It is 2 workers per 1000 which is the worse than the worst in any other industrial sector.

One of the most astounding facts about both Alang and Chittangong, Bangladesh is that till date no worker has been compensated for asbestos exposure.

In India, a Committee headed by Secretary, Union Ministry of Environment submitted a report to the Supreme Court of India concluding that 16 % of workers in Alang are exposed to asbestos. In a stark case of callousness bordering on barbarism, even these workers have neither been compensated nor efforts made to treat them till date. Asbestos related diseases are incurable. The chemical exposure of workers and communities has never been addressed. Migrant workers of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Orissa spend most of whatever they earn on their health problems. There is indisputable evidence world over that no controlled and safe use and handling of asbestos is possible. As result more than 50 countries have banned asbestos. In India trade in asbestos waste both dust and fibers is banned but the authorities have so far condoned its entry into India on ships such as Blue Lady (SS Norway).

Despite such a grim situation UN’s Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal appears poised to pass competency on this issue to UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) a body without competence on waste management issues; that has drafted a new Ship Recycling Convention (International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships) which, without significant reform will turn back the clock on established principle.
IMO Convention in its current text does not achieve an equivalent level of control as that required under the Basel Convention; and worst of all, it will not stop a single toxic ship from moving across oceans to disproportionately burden the poorest of the poor with toxic waste.

In June 2008, the ninth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal initiated in response to numerous international scandals regarding hazardous waste trafficking that began to occur in the late 1980s and continues till today.
In her statement to COP 9, Katharina Kummer Peiry, Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention too reiterated "to the IMO the importance of ensuring that the new ship recycling Convention provides an equivalent level of control as that established under Basel Convention. The final negotiations International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, under the auspices of IMO will take place in October 2008, prior to its adoption by the Diplomatic Conference in May 2009.

The proposed convention fails to address the four fatal flaws of the beaching method for ship breaking. They are outlined as follows:

1. Cranes Cannot be Placed Alongside Ship: Lack of hard standing alongside the ship to plant cranes to lift heavy cut blocks and sheet steel, or to be used to quickly lift persons from the ship for emergency reasons.

2. Lack of access by emergency vehicles and equipment: Soft sands and tidal conditions make it very difficult for fire trucks, ambulances etc. to approach the ship in urgent conditions, seriously delaying the possibility to rescue or administer first aid to victims of accidents.

3. No Possibility for Containment: Operations involving cutting, removal of oils and bilge waters etc., PCB laden paints and other materials must take place with direct ship to sediment contact allowing continuous release of paints-substrates, hull fouling organisms, chemical compounds and biocides, (antifouling, etc.) and non-collected debris from the operations, allowing the ground and surface waters to be contaminated without possibility of remediation. Oils cannot even be contained with booms. Lack of cranes prevent horizontal cutting and use of hull for containment.

4. Coastal Zone, Intertidal Zone is environmentally sensitive: Managing hazardous wastes in the intertidal zone can never be environmentally sound. Coastal zones not only provide little opportunity for containment from surface and groundwater, but are especially sensitive to the protection of fisheries, wildfowl, and the marine environment.

Environmental groups have been demanding remediation of beaches of their toxic contamination in India and Bangladesh where ship-breaking activity takes place is a pressing need to retrieve and protect the fragile coastal environmental and public health of communities and their livelihoods.

These groups are genuinely concerned about the proposed IMO convention on ship dismantling fails to establish equivalent level of control in its document.

In the Indian context, our officials who are negotiating at the IMO level must 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. Especially, given the fact that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court order of 6th September 2007 that seek prior decontamination of ships in the country of export.

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 industrial activity on the beach started in 1983 in the absence India’ Environment Protection Act, 1986. 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. History will bear testimony to its manifest and unpardonable failure in ensuring remediation and restoration of Alang beach for posterity.

Lack of coordination among Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Shipping, Ministry of Steel and Ministry of Commerce is taking a toll on India’s interest. The way economic agreements with countries like Japan are influencing Indian position on environmental health is matter of grave concern.

Admittedly, Gujarat Maritime Board does not have the competence to supervise an industrial activity like ship breaking and ensuring workers safety in this industry. The same holds true for the IMO. But shipping industry of the developed countries like Norway and Greece are using one UN body (IMO) to undermine another (Basel) to escape decontamination and liability cost.

IMO has ignored fundamental obligations and principles of the Basel Convention, such as whether vessels are wastes, the need to minimize transboundary movement of wastes, the obligation to minimize the generation of hazardous wastes.

It is indeed alarming to note that IMO pins the burden of ship dismantling risk and obligation on the developed countries like India that host of the existing ship breakers and recyclers. IMO distorts the polluter-pays principles and advocates “polluted- pays” principle by burdening the recipient countries like Bangladesh and India with most of their responsibilities. It is working very hard to ensure that ship designers, owners and operators who have the technical and financial resources to deal with hazardous wastes upstream are relieved of their duty to minimize wastes they have generated.

IMO’s role is to ensure green ship design, proper inventory, decontamination of hazardous substances prior to export for disposal. What IMO should do and Indian negotiators should work for is to create a mandatory regime that ensures that all future ships are free of hazardous materials. If that is done very soon Basel will no longer be required to deal with toxic ships like Le Clemenceau.


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