Updated: June 2, 2011 15:58 IST

‘Graveyard for ship-breakers'

K. R. A. Narasiah
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When the French aircraft carrier, Clemenceau, headed for Alang on the Gujarat coast for ship-breaking, with almost 27,000 tonnes of steel scrap and 40-50 tonnes of hazardous asbestos, many NGOs and activists protested against its beaching at Alang. The Supreme Court of India, in January 2006, had to intervene to stop its arrival in India. After being laid off at the French port Bret for two years, it was sent to the United Kingdom's ship-recycling centre, Hartlepool, under a special dispensation. But for the activists, Alang would have borne the brunt of the hazardous waste, causing irreparable damage to the coast and the health of the labourers employed there, mostly from Bihar and Orissa.


The Basel convention on the “control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal” lays emphasis, in its preamble, on awareness of the serious consequences of disposing waste material. In practice, however, the developing countries do not respect the spirit of the convention. Given this and the fact that ship-breaking is an area that is not properly understood, this book — published as part of the series, “Legal aspects of sustainable development” edited by David Freestone — is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject.

Puthucherril spells out the principles of the Basel convention, taking pains to draw relevant quotes from a wide range of sources on the consequence of hazardous waste disposal in all its varied aspects. In logically arranged chapters, the book discusses in depth the ship-breaking business, the limitations of a national response, the contemporary international law on ship-recycling and so on.

Ship-breaking, being an unregulated industry, naturally thrives in poor countries, where a huge mass of cheap labour is available. Since it contributes significantly to the local economy, the authorities tend to turn a Nelson's eye to the deleterious impact it has on the community at large and the human suffering it causes. As the author says, “the facilities are not only big cemeteries for dying ships; they are also a graveyard for the ship-breakers who toil hard to dismember them.” The major issues involving the ship-breaking industry that affect sustainability have to do with environmental protection and occupational safety. Asbestos exposure can be lethal and, in ship-breaking, this is the biggest hazard. In the latest amendment to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), asbestos is prohibited as an insulating material on all new constructions from January 2011. But there are a large number of ships built earlier and waiting to be scrapped, and all of them will end up in yards like Alang. This has been discussed in detail. In the classic case of Blue Lady that was beached in Alang, the author makes many points with reference to the court order, especially the observations of Justice S.H. Kapadia, regarding the principle of proportionality. Quoting from various sources, he shows that there are limitations to regulating this industry.

Contemporary law

While discussing contemporary law in different countries, it is explained how the shipping industry considers the Basel convention tools inappropriate to this business. It is pointed out that when the rules were framed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — or the Law of the Sea, for short — ship-breaking was not an issue of international concern. In the chapter on “deciphering the ship-recycling convention”, a subject that is most relevant to the present, the author provides a detailed analysis of the Convention (2009) and highlights the International Maritime Organization's (IMO)resolve to effectively address the ship-recycling issues in a legally binding instrument. He emphasises that its effectiveness will ultimately depend solely on the flag state administration and on the recycling states. The legal regime is examined in all its nuances in the concluding chapter, and the message is that the convention has merely provided a platform, and it is for the different players to work concertedly and make sustainable recycling of ships a matter of culture.

Puthucherril does look positively and in detail at India's attempts to regulate this industry in line with the international control regime. Testifying to his commitment to the subject are his concluding words: “Let the dead ships rest in peace and not torment the living…”

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