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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clemenceau controversy: A lethal weapon

Green groups are up in arms and it's a cause that has found many believers and some recent converts. The decommissioned French warship, Clemenceau is a sailing load of asbestos and it's on its way to Sriram Scrap Vessels at the Alang shipyard in Gujarat. There it will be broken down. This ship has created such a ruckus because it is believed that it carries lethal amounts of asbestos, which is going to ruin the health of people, who work on dismantling the ship.

This is a Rs 40 crore contract, which has been rejected by other countries like Turkey, Greece and Spain but there are as many countries willing to pounce on it, if India says no as well. Bangladesh being one of them. Newspapers have been making environmental activism a daily feature, which is a good thing, since in this case, the Supreme Court has ordered the government to prevent the ship from coming near Indian waters till February 13.

The apex court order couldn't have come sooner because Greenpeace's toxic campaigner Ramapati Kumar told CNBC-TV18, "There are a lot of hazardous materials on board, which makes it unsafe. And also because, they lied from day 1 - they said it would go to Turkey for scrapping, once it is decontaminated but when it arrived there, it was found that it had not been decontaminated and due to Greenpeace's intervention, Turkey refused to accept it."

Both France and India are signatories to the Basel Convention, where it was promised that toxic waste would not be imported and exported. The French are conveniently arguing that warships are an exception to that, while the Chairman of the Monitoring Committee, Dr Thiagarajan says that no such exceptions must be made.

Well known environmental lawyer and Magsaysay award winner, Mahesh Chandra Mehta says that Dr Thiagarajan is right and at this point, this ship is not a warship at all, but rather, almost like junk. Ofcourse, it hasn't helped that the warship has 220 tonnes of asbestos on board and that France promised to decontaminate 90% of it but didn't do it.

Now, the French are singing a different tune and are saying that according to the weight of the entire ship, there is only 45 tonnes on board, which is 0.02% of the whole and which the French Defence Minister, Jean Francois Bureau calls "very neglible."

Not only is Greenpeace skeptical, but even the French NGO, 'Ban Asbestos' says the ship must be carrying somewhere between 140-180 tonnes compared to the official figure and Technopure - the French company, which was supposed to carry out the decontamination process - said that the real figure could also be as high as 500-1,000 tonnes.

Technopure provided the Ship Decommissioning Industry Corporation, SDIC, two quotations - 3 million euro and a 6 million euro - so that the high level of contamination could be properly dealt with - but the cheaper one was chosen. Kumar feels that the French government is lying and that Technopure is the one telling the truth. He feels that Technopure wasn't allowed to do a proper job about decontaminating the warship.

He's even more convinced because he heard the French ambassador make a remark on a TV channel, that India was a poor country and needed the money. The implication being that morality and environment issues shouldn't be made such a big deal about. The ambassador said they had 'got a good deal'."

Congress party spokesperson, Jayanti Natrajan says that India should institutionalise mechanisms that should prevent such issues becoming a controversy in the future. But at the same time, with regard to Clemenceau, she feels that if there is the slightest danger to workers' health, then the ship should not be allowed into Indian territorial waters.

But as things go in India, the environment minister, the deputy minister and the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, have refused to reassure people, while in France, public opinion and newspaper editorials are urging the recall of the warship back to France. But now, the matter is in the hand of the Indian Supreme Court and the French government, and something should be done soon before it blows way out of proportion.

Kumar also puts the blame, where it also partly and correctly belongs and says, "The Ministry of Environment and Forests culture of silence is giving tacit approval to the whole game that France is playing. France is lying and India is willing to accept those lies."

Want a ringside view to see how a ship's torn down? Click here:

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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