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Fight Over French Asbestos Ship

New Delhi (AFP) Jan 10, 2006
Environmentalists want France to order back an asbestos-laden aircraft carrier at the centre of a major row over its voyage to the world's largest ship graveyard on India's west coast.

But the Alang shipbreaking yard -- which critics call "India's answer to Dante's Inferno" -- needs the contract, officials say, as it battles a downturn in business amid competition from rivals in Bangladesh, China and elsewhere.

"It will give a boost to activity," J.R. Jadega, chief engineer of the Gujarat Maritime Board which runs the shipyard, told AFP. "The last three years have not been very performing."

The dispatch of the Clemenceau warship by the French government to India has sparked fierce controversy in France and in India with critics accusing Paris of dumping its toxic waste on the Third World.

International environmental group Greenpeace fought a court battle in France and is vowing one in India to force the Clemenceau to turn around if New Delhi does not reject the ship, which is expected to take up to two months to reach Alang.

"France is being incredibly arrogant in sending India its poisonous materials," said Greenpeace spokesman Ramapati Kumar, who is spearheading the anti-Clemenceau fight in India.

On Friday, an India Supreme Court panel temporarily blocked the entry into Indian waters of the ship.

According to the French government, the vessel is carrying 45 tonnes of asbestos insulation. According to the firm that helped partially decontaminate it before the trip, the amount is between 500 and 1,000 tonnes.

The panel said it would make its recommendation to the Supreme Court in two weeks after it got more information.

Alang, located on a remote stretch of coast nearly 200 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of India's financial centre Mumbai, was once just one of many featureless poor villages, and is still too tiny to be marked on many maps.

But its destiny changed after authorities noted it had high tides that can rise as much as 10 meters (33 feet), combined with gently sloping shores.

In 1983, the state-run Gujarat Maritime Board opened a shipbreaking yard for what those in the industry call "end of life" ships -- condemned freighters, tankers, warships, fishing and cruise boats.

Its strong tides and tapering beach mean there is no need for costly drydocks along the yard's 10-kilometer (six mile) strip of coastline.

Titanic-sized vessels can be floated ashore where they are cut up by workers who are often exposed to deadly toxins in the process. Greenpeace says one out of four workers in Alang is expected to contract cancer from workplace poisons. Dozens of workers have died on the job since the yard opened, many from exploding gases and falling steel plates and other objects.

For major industrialised nations, safety and environmental laws make shipbreaking work hugely costly. But in Third World nations, lax enforcement of safety and environmental rules, and a vast supply of cheap labour, can make shipbreaking a profitable proposition.

Still, despite these advantages, Alang has fallen on hard times due to high prices of ships for demolition, a glut in the steel scrap market and competition from rival Third World yards, maritime board officials say.

In the late 1990s, men using gas blowtorches, hacksaws and other basic tools were scrapping some three million tonnes annually. But in the past year, tonnage slumped to one million, said the maritime board's Jadega.

By the middle of last year, India's Business Standard reported that just a fifth of the vast complex's 173 scrap plots were busy.

The fall-off has naturally hurt the workforce, which hails from India's poorest states and lives in congested slums near the yard.

The number of workers has fallen to some 3,000 to 4,000 from 30,000 at its peak, Jadega said.

He said authorities would "take all the safety measures for the workers and for the environment" in scrapping the 24,000-tonne Clemenceau.

"We have got regulations for that. They have to wear personal protective equipment," he said. "We will see that everything is done properly." But Greenpeace says that will not be enough to protect the non-unionized workers from cancer-causing asbestos and the risk of explosions.

"These will only be the most basic precautions," said Greenpeace's Kumar. "They're still going to be exposed to a very dangerous situation. There's huge potential for health hazards."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Beijing (AFP) Jan 09, 2006
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