Clemenceau… The ship that died. But didn’t stop killing.

Feature story - December 12, 2005
BANGALORE, India — Early this morning, off the sleeping coast of Toulon, France, Greenpeace activists boarded the heavily-guarded Clemenceau, a once-majestic aircraft carrier that belonged to the French navy. Far away, in Orissa, India, a young widow insists, “the voice of the poor doesn’t reach far.” Yet somehow, it does. Somehow, the two are inextricably linked, across the oceans.

The toxic warship Clemenceau returns to France, setting a new precedent for developed countries to take action against dumping their toxic and other waste in developing countries.

The Clemenceau, which served as a carrier of warplanes for over three decades, had been resting undisturbed in this French harbour town, its decks desolate, its once-busy structure silent. Until this morning, when activists from Greenpeace and FIDH clambered onto the ship and painted it with a stark message for its owners: "Asbestos Carrier, Stay Out Of India."

The Clemenceau has been at the center of a storm ever since it was retired. Nation after civilized nation has refused to grant this asbestos-laden giant admission to recycling yards, and a lengthy legal battle has been fought, challenging the French government's decision to send the ship to one of the many recycling yards in developing countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

Not surprising, considering the flagrant violation of human and environmental legislation at recycling yards like the ones in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat, on India's western coast.

Watch the Clemenceau action video (quicktime).

Welcome to the armpit of India.

   Alang, where end-of-life ships from the First World come to die. Beached along the coastline like dozens of decomposing whales, the carcasses of ships are dismantled, disemboweled and dismembered until not even a bolt remains.

This is a place that progress purposely forgot, but conveniently remembered when it needed to defecate. No high-tech machinery here, no Makita drills and no Hitachi cranes, just 40,000 migrant labourers working in subhuman conditions, scantily-clad, unprotected, bare-footed, scrabbling with their bare hands to meet the steel mafia's quota and earn a miminum wage. Scurrying like ants on fresh road-kill, workers haul miles of cable out to burn on the beach, use blowtorches to cut through pipes containing oil and gas that often explode in their faces, and expose themselves to hundreds of debilitating chemicals that surround them 24 hours a day.

For self-evident reasons Alang, where the air itself seems drugged on a toxic cocktail, and tar balls bob in the sluggish water, is referred to as the armpit of India.

Hidden in plain sight.

The dismal conditions at the yards are no secret. Neither are international agreements like the Basel Convention, optimistically signed with a view to end trans-boundary shipment of wastes. But the worst-kept secret of all is the complicity between ship-owning nations and ship-recyclers that are willing to break every law of the land to extract their pound of steel.

The Clemenceau is expected to yield 22,000 tons of steel - making it a prime purchase for a recycling yard. But as Greenpeace has repeatedly reminded the world, the Clemenceau also bears 270 tons of asbestos, besides thousands of kilograms of the 'usual' toxic substances found on board an end-of-life ship.

But the Clemenceau is neither the first, nor the last toxic behemoth headed to Indian shores. Half of the world's ocean-going ships end their sailing lives in India. Most of these vessels land on the ship-breaking beaches of Alang.

A ship a day. A death a day.

In Alang, workers' safety is jeopardized by a near-total absence of precautions and planning. Accidents are commonplace and hundreds of workers have lost their lives due to accidents and explosions. According to the workers that Greenpeace and FIDH talked with, every month four to five people die at the yards. According to others, the actual number is six times higher.

Four or five a month doesn't seem like much at first reading. But consider the staggering number of months and years over which these statistics stubbornly refuse to shift downwards. Consider, too, that Gujarati workers consider the ship-breaking jobs too risky and hazardous, so most of the labourers are migrants from states as far away as Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal or Uttar Pradesh.

Why do labourers from these states come to Alang? Ask Sashi Sethi, the widow of Surendra Sethi, eking out a meagre living in Khaling village in Orissa. After her husband died in Alang, she says she has tried repeatedly to tell the other young men of their village not to go to Alang. But they tell her in response, "If we go to Alang only one man dies, but if we don't five will die." What do you say to that?

The report that set it all off.

People who lose their lives due to ship-breaking activities are hardly ever mentioned and when they are reported, it is mostly as 'numbers' and 'statistics', whether it is in governmental or intergovernmental fora or in the media.

Ship-breaking involves environmental justice as well as human rights issues. This is why, for the first time, Greenpeace and FIDH decided to bring together their expertise in these respective fields and publish a joint report titled End of Life Ships - the Human Costs of Breaking Ships.

During the compilation of this report, delegations from Greenpeace and FIDH visited the working and living places of these workers in India and Bangladesh, to witness first-hand the real stories behind these statistics.

The result is the heart-rending report released in Geneva and New Delhi, even as the action unfolded in Toulon.

As Ramapati Kumar, Greenpeace India Toxics Campaigner, said from on board the Clemenceau, "Anyone reading this report would bristle with anger at the injustice of the situation. It is a shame that the Clemenceau, already tainted as a messenger of war, should be allowed to wreak further damage even after it has been decommissioned."

Click here to read the report that motivated Greenpeace and FIDH activists from five countries to take action against the asbestos carrier.

And if your blood starts to boil in response, here's what you can do to help…

We've compiled a deck of ship-breaking playing cards - each card will show a ship that we know is about to end up in a ship-breaking yard soon. Will you help us spot one of them? If you happen to be connected with the shipping industry, you can also play detective for Greenpeace. Help us spot the worst end-of-life ships before they land up at a recycling yard.

To get an up-close-and-personal account of ship-breaking yards in Turkey, Bangladesh, India and China, watch the video here…

To see whether you can do better than most shipping companies, play the Flash game, 'Tricks Of The Trade'

Finally, you can also help keep us in action around the world, and support our urgent work against toxic ship-breaking. Your donation could be as little as a ship-breakers' wages, but it will help keep our fight alive…

Our allies, without whom we cannot sustain our fight against the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, are the Basel Action Network, FIDH and Young Power for Social Action, Bangladesh

Read the related Press Release