The Indian Analyst

Regulate Ship Breaking Business


 Le Clemenceau is the condemned French aircraft carrier that is on its way to the Alang ship-breaking yard in Gujarat. The Alang facility, employing over 100,000 people, is one of the most efficient and cost effective ship-breaking yards in the world. However, the source of controversy with le Clemenceau is that it contains large quantities of asbestos, a carcinogenic substance. Hence, there is risk of exposure to the laborers who lack awareness, poorly trained, and insufficiently protected. Added to this is the fear that the lack of strong enforcement of laws in India may encourage incorrect disposal of the toxic waste that could pollute Indian water tables, destroy quality of agricultural land, and cause collateral damage to the larger population.  

Ship breaking is good business because of its inherent nature. It provides employment to a lot of people, allows scavenging of materials for a fraction of the cost, and allows recycling of materials. Steel is the most apparent material that is scavenged and every ton of recycled steel has hidden benefits. Production of steel involves mining which is often badly regulated and controlled and often results in the destruction of old growth forests where the iron ore deposits are usually found; increased pollution from furnaces that process materials to produce steel which results in greenhouse gases and thereby increases global warming; heavy use of water to cool melted and molded steel rods thereby raising concerns of industrial effluent treatment, runoff, and water-pollution; demand for energy to fire the turbines, generators, and other industrial equipment; increased use of fossil fuel to produce this electricity; and transportation of steel for processing through outdated, polluting, and environmentally unfriendly trucks. Therefore, the more steel that is recycled the better it is for the environment.  

Steel is also a substance that is essential for industrial and economic growth. India, at its projected 7.5-8% growth would be requiring more and more of this resource to grow its crumbling infrastructure. Roads, Bridges, railway lines, airports, shipping ports, industrial houses, office complexes, housing, and other large scale development is projected for India. All this will require steel and the demand and pressure on the environment will be higher than ever. 

Opportunistically, Le Clemenceau brings in the right context for this debate that encompasses many critical issues like business and economy, environment, health, and labor safety. The primary points of contention with this ship are 4. Firstly, activists say that the quantity of asbestos on the ship is very high because its sister ship, Le Fuchs, which is similar in design, form, and shape and built around the same time has asbestos in the funnel that the French Government is not considering. Technopure’s, the company that implemented the first phase of asbestos removal, assessment that the ship has 500 tons of asbestos, strengthens their argument. The French Government dismisses these estimates as “sheer fancy” and says that it has removed most of the asbestos on board. Secondly, activists say that the Alang labor force is endangered by this business. Alang officials say that there are very few cases of asbestos exposure and insist that they are capable of handling such business. They also say that if India spurns this business, then the ship will go to Pakistan, Bangladesh, or China where there is scant or no regulation. Thirdly, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) feels that the presence of asbestos on the ship tantamount to the trans-national transfer of toxic material which is in violation of the 1989 Basel Convention to which both India and France are signatories. The Indian Government says that an earlier Dutch ship with asbestos, Ricky, was disassembled in Alang and at that time the Basel Convention was not invoked. The French Government says that the Basel Convention does not include naval ships and the Indian Government seems to agree with this view. Fourthly, there is indignation about this business where a developed country is seen as palming off its problems to a developing nation. 

Focusing on only one of these issues will definitely take away the real win in the debate. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether in a global economy where ship breaking is seen as a very profitable and employment-generating business, it is possible to protect our environment, labor, and international obligations. A dispassionate appraisal will reveal that there is a way out but it calls for a lot of regulation, implementation, and oversight. These are areas where India is very weak; this is the real reason for the fear among environmental activists, jurists, and citizens. 

However, harping on how inefficient Indian enforcement efforts are today will foreclose opportunities to create a process whereby the future of this industry is safeguarded. Even if that means we have an inadequate process management now. The right policy for this issue is to ensure that we create the right mechanisms to protect our business and economy, environment, and employee safety. We have two broad paths available to us; manage the business with asbestos safely or avoid it altogether. 

If India decides to manage the business with asbestos, there are a number of policies, regulations, and mechanisms that are required. Firstly, India should take up the latest French offer to repatriate asbestos from Le Clemenceau so India does not have to deal with safely disposing the toxic waste. Secondly, India should seek French partnership to create awareness about asbestos and technologies for safely handle and remove this material with the right equipment. Thirdly, since the proposal is to ship the toxic material back to France or any other country of origin for future cases, the application of Basel Convention is irrelevant. Fourthly, if we are to succeed in a global economy, we have to break out of our sense of socialism, communism, and moralist obsession. Refusing Le Clemenceau will not get rid of tons of asbestos already deployed in India, a subsidized industry growing at 12%, or increase environmental awareness or safety norms. Business is business is an ancient Indian wisdom and we cannot lose sight of it. Fifthly, we should maintain records of people who work with toxic materials so we can monitor their health, provide free and quality healthcare, and create a relief mechanism for their families for potential disabilities. 

If we do not want asbestos in India and are willing to forego the business, we have to bring about different set of policies, regulations, and mechanisms. Firstly, we have to stop the import, manufacture, and distribution of asbestos. Secondly, we have to identify, commandeer, and safely destroy all asbestos in India. Thirdly, we have to create an awareness of the dangers of asbestos and ask people get rid of that material safely. Fourthly, we need to have toxic dumps that would specifically handle the large asbestos quantities in use in the country. Fifthly, we have to create legislation and oversight mechanisms so asbestos is not dumped unsafely and thereby affect water tables, land quality, and food production. 

The ideal route would be for India to get rid of asbestos from its society and not lose the ship-breaking business through the aforementioned measures.

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