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The battle over a warship continues

Saturday 11 February 2006, by NARAVANE*Vaiju

Opposition is growing in France to the Government’s efforts to get the Clemenceaud ismantled in India.

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WIDESPREAD PROTESTS: A Greenpeace banner in front of the French Embassy in New Delhi. - Photo: PTI.

EVEN AS France launched an intense media blitz aimed at convincing the Indian Supreme Court to allow the dismantling of the asbestos-laden former French aircraft carrier, Clemenceau, at the Alang ship-breaking yard in Gujarat, a hundred French personalities, including senators, MPs and former environment ministers, signed a petition asking President Jacques Chirac to repatriate the ship.

The signatories included Corrine Lepage who was Environment Minister in the conservative government led by Alain Juppe, a close confidante of President Chirac, and Nicolas Hulot, a well-known environmentalist and TV personality, also said to have close links with the French leader.

An opinion poll published on Thursday showed that 68 per cent of the French oppose the Clemenceau’s decontamination and dismantling in India. "The French interest in the fate of the Clemenceau has not waned and people are calling for its return," Daniel Levy, the director of the polling institute CSA which carried out the survey, said in Paris.

Of those questioned, 54 per cent said they were "shocked" that the ship was sent to India for decontamination and dismantling. "Above all," Mr. Levy said, "this is an ethical and moral question of man’s place on the planet. News reports showing the working conditions in the ship breaking yards in India have generated an emotive response. The French say: `We cannot do this to them [the Indians] when we are incapable of offering adequate protection against asbestos to our own workers.’ The increased awareness about problems related to health and safety in the workplace is quite significant."

The pollster said that with the Clemenceau, "the French are questioning a developmental model that no longer appeals to them. They want responsible development, they are concerned by the environmental aspect and they want polluting countries to assume the ill-effects linked to development."

The survey showed that 84 per cent of the French do not wish toxic wastes produced by the North to be exported to developing countries and, on the contrary, insist they should be treated in the country of origin or in another industrialised nation.

"What is truly interesting in this poll is that whatever the sex, age, political opinion or socio-professional category of the persons questioned, they all have the same opinion on this dossier," Mr. Levy said.

Since details of the split within the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on Toxic Wastes reached France, the French Defence Ministry appears increasingly confident of a favourable ruling by the Indian Supreme Court. In a last minute media blitz before the apex court takes its final decision next Monday, the French Defence Minister said France was willing to repatriate all the asbestos that would be removed from the Clemenceau. Michele Alliot-Marie also said that workers decontaminating the Clemenceau in Alang would be subjected to medical tests before and after the completion of the work and for a third time a year later.

Media criticised

In a propaganda "interview" sent out by the Defence Ministry, France’s Ambassador to India Dominique Girard said he had toured the Clemenceau’s future decontamination site and was satisfied with the working conditions there. Ambassador Girard accused the media of using "ten-year-old footage which has nothing to do with the reality of today."

However, a documentary report by France 3rd channel using a hidden camera showed workers dismantling an ocean liner in hazardous conditions without protective gear. "These are not archival pictures but shots taken today," the documentary said.

The Ambassador also issued veiled warnings in his "interview" to the effect that the Indian shipbuilding industry would lose all credibility if the Clemenceau were barred entry to this country. "All ships contain asbestos and all of them hold a risk for the environment. If the arrival of the Clemenceau is not seen as an opportunity to modernise the industry, it will show a lack of confidence in the future of the industry." If the Clemenceau did not come to India, he warned, it could go to China, Pakistan or Bangladesh, and India would have difficulty finding new clients.

French Navy Chief Admiral Oudot de Dainville in a long deposition before the French Parliament on February 8, reiterated France’s position vis-?-vis the Basel Convention, which bars the trans-boundary export of toxic waste.

"The particular nature of the Clemenceau, considered war material under the legislation of the exporting country, France, means that the French state has no intention of disposing of it, since it will, after asbestos removal and dismantling, become steel ... It does not constitute, in the sense of the Convention, a waste, given that it will at no moment be disposed of, only transformed."

This is like saying that a sari, cut up to make dishrags, will not be eliminated but get added value during its transformation from sari to dishrag. This to say that ships made into razor blades or rolled into steel sheets are not eliminated. According to the rules of science matter cannot be eliminated. Burn something and it becomes ash. But can this be applied to the Clemenceau? The point is that the Clemenceau will cease to be a ship. It will be eliminated as a ship and in that sense it does fall under the definition of the Basel Convention.

What the law says

Article 2 of the Basel Convention is extremely clear about the definition of wastes: " `Wastes’ are substances or objects which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law; ... `Transboundary movement’ means any movement of hazardous wastes or other wastes from an area under the national jurisdiction of one State to or through an area under the national jurisdiction of another State or to or through an area not under the national jurisdiction of any State, provided at least two States are involved in the movement; ... "Disposal" means any operation specified in Annex IV to this Convention."

Under Disposal Operations of Annexe IV, the Convention lists "A: Operations which do not lead to the possibility of resource recovery, recycling, reclamation, direct re-use or alternative uses," and "B: Operations which may lead to resource recovery, recycling reclamation, direct re-use or alternative uses." Included in this list is: "(R4) Recycling/reclamation of metals and metal compounds" and "(R5) Recycling/reclamation of other inorganic material."

The French state has clearly sought to mislead the country’s lawmakers.

French newspapers have reported on the split within the SCMC said to be divided 7-3. The Committee has issued two reports one calling for the return of the ship to France, the other requesting the court to apply stringent entry pre-conditions. The majority report, compiled by government representatives to the SCMC, calls for a pre-entry deposit of up to three times the value of the ship - an estimated 24 million Euros or roughly Rs.120 crore. This sum will be forfeited if the asbestos on board is found to be over the declared 45 tonnes. Sources indicate that the report calls for the permanent posting in India of French engineers for the duration of the asbestos removal to oversee the work and for the repatriation of all the toxic wastes removed.

Future problems?

The French Navy Chief in his declaration before the National Assembly raised the question of other French warships built before 1995 that will come up for decommissioning in the coming decade. All these ships are full of asbestos and other toxic substances. The Clemenceau’s entry into India is crucial for the fate of these other ships lined up for dismantling. French trade unions have already brought this to the notice of the Navy in the past and have suggested setting up a proper industrial base within France for the decontamination and dismantling of French warships; a suggestion that, for purely economic reasons, the French state appears loath to consider.

Admiral Dainville said that if India refused entry to the Clemenceau, two solutions were under consideration - the use of the ship for target practice to test the efficiency of new armaments, which would lead to its sinking at sea; or its dismantling in another ship-breaking yard elsewhere in Asia.

See online : The Hindu

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