The French warship Clemenceau was decommissioned at Toulon in France way back in 1977, and lay there all these years as no country wanted it, even as scrap. With good reason - they decided it is a toxic ship with a huge amount of asbestos. The 27,000 tonne aircraft carrier, however, made news on New Year's Day as it set sail heading to the shores of Alang, the largest ship-breaking yard in the world, in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. Just days before 2006 was rung in, a French court okayed the sending of the warship insulated with asbestos to India, after rejecting petitions by campaigners trying to block its transfer. Then, environmental activists of Greenpeace and other organizations managed to break the tight security and board the ship to shout slogans against it being sent to India, where impoverished workers would break down the toxic ship, with its 500+ tonnes of asbestos.

It would spread death and disease, the activists warned, quite apart from violating the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, which clearly prohibits one country transporting its toxic waste to another. The asbestos within could cause cancer and other health complications, warn activists, noting that this is precisely why other countries had refused to let the Clemenceau sail to their shores. Earlier attempts to send the ship to Turkey and Greece did not work as both countries refused the toxic ship for obvious reasons. (Click on: to read the Greenpeace report on shipbreaking: End of Life Ships - the Human Costs of Breaking Ships)

Nearly 300 ships are broken at Alang every year. (File Picture by Tom Pietrasik).

Ravi Aggarwal, director of New Delhi-based Toxics Link and member of the Basel Action Network says that the sending of the ship to India is a clear violation of international law. "The French are now trying to say that it is not a ship but material of war and so cannot be covered under the Basel convention. At the moment it is being towed by another ship to India and it is clearly a case of toxic waste being shipped. It is completely illegal and allowing it should not set a precedent." His fears are well founded, with over 2000 oil tankers that are going to come up for breaking in the next four years. These oil tankers are very old ships and carry a lot of asbestos material within. Aggarwal also points to special laws like the Management and Handling Rules 1989 (Amended in 2003) which says that asbestos is a hazardous waste and needs special provisions to handle it. Alang does not have the capacity to handle asbestos, he said.

Since the furore broke, a Monitoring Committee of the Supreme Court on Hazardous Wastes Management has declared that the Clemenceau should not enter India. Committee Chairman G. Thyagarajan said it was not desirable for the ship to enter Indian waters. And if it were allowed, it would have to furnish a bank guarantee of Rs. 80 crore - twice the value of the ship. Said Thyagarajan: "Why should India spend Rs. 40 crore in foreign exchange to buy trouble? Why should we sacrifice our precious soil to bury some other country's junk?"

The French government had claimed that the ship contained only a few tonnes of asbestos as it has been decontaminated. Low levels of contamination may be acceptable to the monitoring committee, whose members are to meet again to review the decision before the ship arrives. But Eric Baudon and Jean-Claude Giannino, representatives of Technopure, the French company contracted to decontaminate the ship, told the Committee that the ship had only been partially decontaminated and it still contained at least 500 tonnes of asbestos.

"Why should there be any further review when those who decontaminated the ship say that there are 500 tonnes left?", asks an indignant Ramapathy Kumar of Greenpeace, India. "The question is not of quantity of the toxic waste, the issue here is that India cannot permit the ship as it is a signatory to the Basel Convention which forbids one country from sending its toxic waste to another country," he said. In France, the Committee's decision has attracted huge media attention as the Clemenceau episode is being increasingly seen as an eloquent reminder on how developed nations treat poorer countries in Asia.

Earlier attempts to send the ship to Turkey and Greece did not work as both countries refused the toxic ship for obvious reasons.

 •  Alang: Give us a break
 •  Asbestos: Fibres of subterfuge
 •  Fibres of misinformation

India does not have strict rules at Alang. For over two decades now, the yard has been in the vortex of controversy, as it became an environmental bomb of sorts. Labour rules are flouted and India has done little to protect workers - who are mostly migrants from poverty struck districts in Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal. Alang is pockmarked with poor working conditions and a poor quality of life; the employment it has provided to thousands of labourers has been at a very heavy cost. Greenpeace says that workers die every month there because of its pathetic working conditions. Workers do not even have the mandatory protective gear while working in one of the dirtiest industries in the world. The laxity has attracted business; Greenpeace says that almost half of the world's ships that need to be scrapped now end up in India, and shipbreakers are laughing all the way to the bank, even as workers bear the brunt of regulatory failure.

Why is asbestos dangerous? Asbestos is resistant to heat and chemicals. Asbestos fibre is very very thin, a few hundred times thinner than human hair and is very durable. This is why it was in the past used as roofing material. One of its varieties, blue asbestos, is banned in India. But in the shipbreaking yard of Alang, it can be found easily, as it was used in old ships that are broken down here. Automobiles also use it in brake and clutch lining pads. It is also used in floor tiles and pipes that carry water and sewage. When bound together it is relatively safe and the harm is done only when fine particles of the fibre are breathed by humans and thus enter the lungs. Over a period of time, exposure to the fibre can lead to a condition called asbestosis, and could also cause lung cancer.

It is possible to decontaminate large ships of their asbestos and other toxic materials by almost ninety percent, but most ship owners do not do this, as it is very cost intensive. It is easier for them to send it off to poor countries like Bangladesh and India where the laws are weak and whatever few regulations exist are not enforced. The French government claims it has removed around 115 tonnes of asbestos from the ship, but Greenpeace activists say that it is lying. Says Ramapathy: "India must reject the ship, sending a signal to the world that it is not a dumping ground. If we allow this ship, there are another 120 warships of the United States that will now come for shipbreaking. All these ships were rejected by India in 1997. Greenpeace is not against the shipbreaking industry. All that we want is clean shipreabreaking that will not endanger health."

In December 2005, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues pointed out that countries that send their ships to India are actually condoning a poorly regulated system that has already killed many labourers. It said that accidents, explosions and contamination from hazardous waste have affected workers. The Clemenceau controversy has triggered a new demand by Greenpeace, Corporate Accountability Group and other organizations like the Centre for Indian Trade Unions to ensure stricter regulations for the shipbreaking industry.

There is good reason to worry. Alang's 40,000+ workers work in subhuman conditions, are not securely clad with overalls and helmets and work with their bare hands as they cut into the steel to earn a meagre wage. More than half a dozen workers die every month at the yard due to accidents or explosions. Workers use cutters and blowtorches to cut the steel and pipes containing gas or oil. Often, the shipowner does not disclose the dangerous content in the ship, and this results in explosions. As scores of rusting ships are beached at Alang one beside the other, accidents are common. Employers, who are typically hard-nosed businessmen, only look at the money that comes in. For Alang, the Clemenceau is a great catch as it is estimated to yield nearly 22,000 tonnes of steel.

Most of the ships that come to Alang are from United States, Yugoslavia, Poland, Russia, China and Japan. Nearly 300 ships are broken at Alang every year. Shipbreakers fear that the numbers will now fall at Alang as there is stiff competition from Bangladesh and China, which are also violating laws to woo business.

Gujarat, say activists, is particularly lax at protecting workers in hazardous industries, and would rather have the ship. Even chemicals that are banned elsewhere in the world are in production here. Ramapathy Kumar says, "The Gujarat Pollution Board is lying when it says that it is in a position to handle the waste as it is such a huge ship that it cannot be beached and will stay away atleast 3000 feet away. If it is to be decontaminated in India, it has to be done on a platform as it would otherwise pollute the water. Even one mg of asbestos can damage the lungs."

While so much of dust has been kicked up on the issue of the toxic ship that contains 500 tonnes of asbestos, the fact that thousands of tonnes of asbestos is wrecking havoc in the Indian countryside, is being lost. Asbestos is widely used in India for roofing, water pipes and construction. As there is heavy punitive litigation in the developed world against asbestos manufacturers and users, its usage has today collapsed to two per cent of what it was two decades ago. But in India, consumption of asbestos is rising by an alarming 12 per cent. There is no reliable data on asbestos-related diseases among Indian workers. As many as 36 countries in the world have banned asbestos. The European Union banned it in 2005. Interestingly, France banned all forms of asbestos fibres and products in 1977. Says Maneka Gandhi, former Union Enviornment Minister and MP: "Our entire policy on asbestos needs to be changed. We must stop being the junkyard of the world."

Clearly, an opportunity to stop being the junkyard of the world is at hand, but will India take it? Or will business as in the past prevail, putting workers' health and national interests aside?