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
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
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
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
Click here to read the report that motivated Greenpeace and
FIDH activists from five countries to take action against the
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
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
Finally, you can also help keep us in action around the world,
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