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Troubled tales from the sea

An international fact-finding team visited Alang and took note of how toxic-laden vessels were beaching in Gujarat, reports Gopal Krishna

A UN team visiting Alang recently found that the Gujarat yard had virtually no healthcare facilities and routinely violated global shipbreaking norms. The visit followed an enquiry report on December 16 by the Ministry of Environment that asked the Ministry of Steel to investigate how 200 obsolete ships, carrying fake documents, had managed to enter Indian waters post September 2007. This, said the ministry, was in blatant violation of a host of UN laws such as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal and the Rotterdam Convention.

The environment ministry note followed newspaper reports about the highly contaminated US ship Platinum ii (formerly MV Oceanic, SS Independence) that continued to beach at Alang. The discarded vessel – declared dead by the US naval administration – carries hazardous waste, including 238 tonnes of asbestos-containing material and polychlorinated biphenyl and radioactive material, besides 126 used lead batteries. Platinum II is the latest dead arrival to feed Gujarat’s ship-breaking industry.

The probe also found how ship owners from the developed world were buying ‘flags of convenience’ by registering dead vessels in Liberia, Panama, St Vincent, landlocked Mongolia and Tuvalu and then, in turn, sendind them to Alang and Bhavnagar in Gujarat and other South Asian beaches. “Since the ships change hands several times, it becomes virtually ­impossible to trace the original ship owner. Almost 90 percent of the dead ships use these flags of convenience’,” Praveen Nagarseth, head of a shipbreaking association, told TEHELKA.

Interestingly, the Obama team is being advised by Lawrence Summers, president of the US National Economic Council, who has been actively promoting export of dead ships from the US to developing countries. He was exposed after an internal memo to the World Bank, dated December 12, 1991, got leaked. The Interpol is now tracking these illegal shipments to developing countries where an entire industry has grown around their recycling and reclamation. “It’s a highly lucrative business but there are glaring loopholes,” says Ashok Singh, an activist.

Officials of the Gujarat Maritime Board say the US agencies are yet to respond to its concern over the violation of the US Toxic Substances Control Act. Though the United States Environmental Protection Agency (usepa) penalised the rogue ship last January, the vessel was quietly allowed to move out of US waters. Could this have happened without the clearance of the US Maritime Administration? “Doesn’t it become clear from this that the Obama Adminstration favours lifting of the moratorium on such waste?” asks an activist.

Since 1982, when the yard was set up at Alang, nearly 5,000 vessels have been dismantled. In the last four years alone more than 700 dead ships ­arrived at Alang, where over 17,000 workers engaged in ship recycling are exposed to life-taking toxins. Troubled by the recent disclosures, an inter-ministerial committee, constituted by the Supreme Court, has asked the environment and shipping ministries and the GMB as to who should be held accountable for entry of such toxic ships. The answers are ­expected soon. •

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