New Delhi (AsiaNews) - Environmentalists are celebrating a victory and perhaps with good reason: the Indian Minister for the Environment, Jairam Ramesh, requested that the passenger ship Platinum II be denied docking in the "graveyard of ships" in Gujarat, since it is carrying toxic materials. Delhi seems to have realized that the large gains for the disposal of toxic and hazardous waste from all over the world there, are not worth the damage it is provoking on the environment and the health of the population.
The history of Platinum II is similar to other boats more or less unknown that for years industrialized nations have sent to the ports of the poisons in India, Bangladesh, China to be scrapped. The disassembled pieces are then sent to Pakistan. Arriving in all probability from the United States, the ship has violated US protocol on the control toxic substances and falsified flag and registration documents in an attempt to dock at Alang, in north-western state of Gujarat. According to checks by authorities last week and previous complaints from environmentalists, the ship is built with toxic and carcinogenic materials.
Just as in the case of the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, whose story caused a scandal in 2006, the Platinum II is not clean. Although the details of the survey conducted by the Ministry for the Environment on October 20 last are not yet public, according to environmental groups like Greenpeace or the Indian Toxic Links, boats such as these carry a very broad spectrum of harmful substances: lead based paint, other heavy metals like cadmium and arsenic, and especially large quantities of asbestos.
Alang, where ships "die"
Alang is known to be the largest "graveyard of ships" in Asia. Every year, hundreds of old oil tankers, container ships and other vessels continue to be found on this coast, where teams of 150 - 200 workers, mostly without any protection, dismantle ships weighing an average 10 thousand tons in under three months, recovering almost everything. In 1997 India banned the import of ships containing hazardous substances, in accordance with the Basel Convention. This establishes that the vessels of member countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) must be dismantled in the same countries belonging to the organization. Such prohibitions, however, are systematically ignored or circumvented - often falsifying the origin of the boats. According to the Christian Science Monitor, from 2000 to 2008 alone at least 91 commercial vessels flying the American flag, were "re-baptized" with new origins and then sent for scrapping to Third World countries.
According to a Reuters report, the work load at Alang is increasing, to such an extent that the yards can hardly meet demands, from January to March 2009 alone 125 ships arrived in port. 136 in all docked in the years 2007 and 2008. A 2010 study by the European Commission into global ship demolition estimated 18 million tons of ships are awaiting disposal. Most of these have set sail for Asia.
At risk the health of men
The trade in ships to be scrapped is a lucrative business, illegal, but also deadly. Workers at Alang come from the poorest states in India. They work barefoot, and with bare hands: with simple hammers and saws to piece apart the rusted carcasses still full of bitumen, asbestos, toxic waste, and often with gas still in the tanks. A work that is having a harmful impact on the environment and disastrous consequences on the health of these men. A report commissioned by the Indian government three years ago showed that in the controversial ship dump in Gujarat, one worker out of six had signs of asbestosis, an incurable disease of the airways.
Activists have been calling for years, for the closure of the "cemetery" port at Alang. "The order (of the Minister Ramesh) is a victory in the battle against trafficking in toxic waste in developing countries - said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network - until now India had avoided shining the spotlight on the horrors that surround her ship scrapping industry.