The Ghosts of the Sea

Picture yourself in a grey shipyard scattered with twisted steel and rusted scraps as the musty air reeks with a pungent smell of decay and burning metals. A ghostly gloom pervades all around with large aging vessels anchored in silence and all you can see are tired faces covered in dust and dirt rummaging through tonnes of discarded toxic waste. It is a rather grotesque scene yet a reality for hundreds of workers in shipyards across India. As they scrap aging ships under poor safety standards, profit and livelihood takes priority over environment. 

The term "Hazardous Waste" is defined as having properties potentially unsafe "to human health or the environment." These wastes can be anything from pesticides to toxic by-products from the industrial sector and come in various forms like liquids and sludge. While each country is governed by their own set of rules and perceptions in categorizing hazardous waste, it is Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their disposal being shipped to and from countries that has given rise to serious environmental, health and safety concerns. 

India has the world’s largest scrapping site for ocean going ships in Alang, Gujarat. The place mirrors the grim picture of Asian shipyards burdened by awful working conditions and lack of basic safety standards. As one Greenpeace report on the Alang shipyard states that sediments in Alang are more contaminated than the most heavily industrialized port areas. The workers put hard physical labour in a hostile environment and are further beset by the dangerous conditions of falling debris, explosions caused by on board gases and suffocation from carbon-dioxide causing deaths and injuries. According to Greenpeace, one in four Alang workers will succumb to cancer due to the exposure to toxic fumes at the site. The depressing statistics gets even worse as a report commissioned by the Indian Government at the Alang shipyard in 1996 found one in six workers had signs of asbestos poisoning. Moreover, ship breaking activities affect even the areas beyond the yard as pollutants seep into the natural environment damaging agricultural lands and livelihoods. 

The problem is further accentuated by the prevailing corruption and loopholes in the existing Indian laws. This is quite evident in the electronic waste sector where goods cannot be imported into the country for recycling but for reuse or charity. So, now most of the electronic waste is being dumped in India in the name of charity and ending up in junkyards across the country. The Indian authorities that attend the various international meets to discuss the issue of hazardous waste remain rather half-hearted in presenting the Indian viewpoint, indicating the lack of understanding and commitment to international laws. As a result, when rules come into force the same authorities find it difficult to implement it. Richard Gutierrez of Basel Action Network adds that: "The issues before India regarding shipbreaking are very clear - either it prevents environmental degradation and a public health catastrophe or it protects ship breaking industry profits. From its actions, it is very clear that the Indian Government prioritizes the latter more than health of its people or the environment." 

In 1989, responding to the increase in hazardous waste trafficking, the international community adopted The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The efforts yielded results in 1994 when a diverse coalition of environmentalists and developing countries passed the Basel Ban in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a forerunner to a wider ban on all forms of hazardous waste exports from the industrialized countries to the poorer and developing countries effectively as of 1st January, 1998. 

The Basel Convention remains the most recognized international law when it comes to hazardous waste even though there are other agreements such as the Rotterdam Convention (1998) that deals with the issue of hazardous waste at different levels. Though countries like India are a signatory to these conventions, it displays a rather poor record when it comes to implementation as several vessels with hazardous waste are allowed into its shores from the controversial SS Norway to the more recent Blue Lady. Ramapati Kumar of Greenpeace points out that even though India recognizes it as an issue there remains a reluctance to ratify international treaties. Even if the treaty is ratified, the government fails to follow in letter and spirit has been seen repeatedly. 

In India, regulations such as the Hazardous Waste Management and Handling Rules (HWM & H) of December 1989 are in place to deal with hazardous waste and chemicals. Moreover, amendments have been made to these laws to prohibit import of hazardous waste to and from India for dumping or disposal and address the requirements outlined in the Basel Convention. However, the government continues to lack the political will and policy vision to protect the environment and communities who suffer the most from the effects of ship breaking. As Gutierrez points out, India is not just a "soft target" but rather has an image of a "welcome target" for dumping of toxic vessels, the way it has responded with the Riky and the Clemenceau. 

Environmentalists contend that the time has come for the Government in India to acknowledge the reality of becoming the world’s hazardous waste dumping ground. At the same time developed nations also need to be accountable and acknowledge their role in the issue. It is easy to question the weak laws and ethics of ship breaking yards in developing countries such as India because the situation is quite obvious. But then the root of the problem lies in the developed countries that implement stricter environment regulations and as a result many of their polluting industries simply transfer their toxic technologies to countries like India. A good example is US vessel The Platinum II that was anchored off Alang in 2009 and containing toxic material such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). 

The serious issue of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal cannot be addressed by simply shipping them from one port to another. There is an urgent need for viable and innovative solutions. As Kumar points out, the only way forward to deal with the issue is to have clean production policy strictly implemented at all levels and legislation to eliminate chemicals from the production process. It is important to actually respond with greater clarity and political will to issues instead of being unrealistic that formulating laws alone can bring about change. 

According to Basel Action Network there is a very strong public support from the grassroots, especially among the public health officials, trade unions, human rights as well as environmental sectors. But despite the efforts, a lot more needs to be done as legal battles and protests bring short-term attention to the seriousness of the issue, forgotten until the next ship sails to dock. We cannot wait for things to change, it has to come with better initiatives and more importantly to encourage the government to look beyond the financial gains to consider the cost to human life and environment.


More by :  Fatima Chowdhury

Top | Environment

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