A toxic ship named Blue Lady (formerly S S Norway) left the port of Malaysia for Dubai for repairs and later it started sailing towards the Indian port at Alang, Gujarat. Sanjay Parikh and Rohit Alex brought this to the notice of the Supreme Court. Parikh is a Supreme Court advocate.

On 12 May 2006, I filed an application in the apex court asking the court to ensure that the ship complied with international law, national law and the court's own order dated 14 October 2003 before arrival of the ship at the Indian Port. According to the ship's owner (and breaker) Rajiv Reniwal of Haryana Ship Demolitions Pvt. Ltd., the ship contains 1240 MT of toxic asbestos, and also polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a neurotoxin.

Import of asbestos waste is banned under the Hazardous Waste Rules, 2003 under the Indian Environment Protection Act. Some 40 countries have banned asbestos because of its cancer causing characteristics. I had prayed to the court to direct that the Blue Lady not be allowed entry as it would be in violation of the Supreme Court's directions of October 2003.

However, on 5 June, Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice C K Thakker (vacation bench) at the Supreme Court permitted the Blue Lady to anchor at Alang, on humanitarian grounds. The court saw an interim report of the Technical Committee on ship-breaking, chaired by Prodipto Ghosh, Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The Blue Lady does not have the mandatory Form 7 documents from country of export required for hazardous waste shipments. Neither does it have a complete inventory of toxic wastes on board.

Technical Experts Committee on Ship breaking

Prodipto Ghosh, Chairman.
V Rajgopalan, Member Secretary.
Rear Admiral P V Damodaran (Retd).
Rear Admiral Rajeev Paralikar.
Rear Admiral R M Bhatia.
Virendar Misra, Industrial Toxicological Research Centre, Lucknow.
Professor S C Mishra, Department of Ocean Engineering and Naval Architecture, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Professor V Anantha Subramanian, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.
S K Mukerjee, Consultant, Ministry of Environment & Forests, Ozone Cell.
H N Saiyed, National Institute of Occupational Health.
R K Garg, Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited.
K D Choudhary, General Manager, MECON Limited, Ranchi.

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Arguing before the court in favour of allowing the ship into Alang, the Technical Committee cited two reasons. One, that monsoons were approaching and if the ship were not allowed to be anchored, then the ship might get damaged in the high seas. Two, that there were 13 Indians on board -- all crew members -- and they would suffer from paucity of food and water, if the ship was not allowed in.

Arguments with regard to the legality or illegality of anchoring and dismantling of the ship will only be heard in July 2006. The justices said nothing about dismantling; the Technical Committee will decide on it after the ship-purchaser submits its decommissioning plan.

The Blue Lady left Malaysia on 5 May 2005. A letter issued by Malaysian authorities states that the ship was going to Dubai for repair, presumably based on a declaration by the ship's owners. But this was misleading, as the ship was in fact headed towards India. The ship has made several attempts to reach scrap yards, including an aborted attempt late last year when the Bangladesh Government prohibited it from entering the country on health and environmental grounds.

In allowing the ship in, the justices seemed to agree with the Technical Committee that if the ship is not anchored it would not be possible for the inspection team to visit the ship. In addition, experts from the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) and Central Pollution Control Board will undertake an inspection. These were also the officials who had inspected Riky, the Danish ship which was allowed to be anchored and dismantled illegally in 2005 and that matter is still before the court. (See report: The scrapping of Riky)

In the meantime, following adverse publicity about low occupational safety standards at Alang, GMB has imposed a ban on media persons visting the area. According to International Labour Organisation, workers' safety is jeopardised by the absence of basic precautions and work planning, including, but not restricted to: insufficient or no training; insufficient or no personal protection equipment; insufficient or no monitoring of work operations; and insufficiencies in facilities. Due to the absence of norms about the standard the vessel should be in when it arrives for scrapping, the vessel represents in itself a number of potential risks. Basic risk-reducing or eliminating measures are often ignored and ultimately accidents occur.

Furthermore, India, being a signatory to the Basel Convention on transboundary movement of hazardous waste has repeatedly failed to fulfil its Basel obligations. In fact, New Delhi has refused to acknowledge that a ship laden with toxic substances in its structure and destined for dismantling to be a hazardous waste, as enshrined in the Decision VII/26 in Conference of Parties-7 of Basel Convention in October 2004.

The Basel Convention found its origin in the international outrage due to illegal transnational shipping of hazardous waste. In the later half of the 1980s, the highly industrialised countries faced stringency in the environmental regulations, and this led to a rise in the costs of hazardous waste disposal. Exploring cheaper alternatives, the hazardous wastes began finding an easy inlet into the developing countries. The Convention basically aims at controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes apart from promoting environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes.

"Reduction at source" is another prime focus of the Convention. The Convention also aims to ensure that the generated hazardous wastes are treated and disposed of as close to the source of generation as possible.

The media appear to have failed to take note of the fact that the apex court has allowed anchoring of the ship on humanitarian grounds and not on legal grounds. As noted earlier, in a similar episode in 2005, the Danish ship, Riky, was allowed into Alang and dismantled despite repeated diplomatic recall requests from Denmark. The apex court is hearing the Riky case and is yet to decide on the issue.

More recently, in 2005-06, the French aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau was being allowed to enter Indian waters laden with toxic substances, till the French government recalled the ship from the high seas under intense public pressure and legal actions in the French courts.