The global eco-warrior comes calling

A crew member at work on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, now docked in Mumbai.  

MUMBAI NOV. 6. The Rainbow Warrior, belonging to the environmental group Greenpeace, sailed into Mumbai's Ferry Wharf on Wednesday to launch Greenpeace India's campaign for corporate responsibility. The ship brings with it a crew of 15 from 10 countries.

The Chief Mate, Moritz Kuhlenbaumer, said their immediate focus was on the ship-breaking yard at Alang, Gujarat. An estimated 40,000 workers from Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh break hundreds of end-of-life vessels — ships that are not seaworthy — at the yard under extremely hazardous conditions.

"The point we are trying to make," Mr. Kuhlenbaumer said, "is that big companies should clean up ships before they send them to Alang. Companies make huge profits from these ships and then sell them off to ship-breakers. We are not opposing the ship-breaking industry in Alang. We understand that people need to make a living. But European companies should take the responsibility to ensure that their ships are free of toxic substances before they are sent here."

On an average, it takes three months to break down a ship. Over 95 per cent of the value of these ships lies in the steel recovered from them as scrap. Some 600 to 700 vessels are brought every year to Asian ship-breaking yards such as Alang. But in the process of recovering scrap, the workers, who wear no protective gear, are exposed to hazardous materials such as asbestos. These substances also pollute the soil and the sea as mineral oil and other compounds in the ship's bilge are released in the process.

The medical officer on board the Rainbow Warrior, Lesley Simkiss, from New Zealand, says that the effects of exposure to asbestos are not immediate. Fine particles lodge themselves in the lining of the lung, leading to asbestosis and also cancer. Many workers will probably not even be aware that their respiratory problems are caused by such exposure.

If these ships were broken up in Europe, says Mr. Kuhlenbaumer, the process would cost companies a hundred times more just in wages. This is apart from the precautions they would have to take to ensure that they do not expose workers to hazards or pollute the surroundings. Yet, these companies have no compunction about sending these ships to Asia.

As part of its campaign, Greenpeace plans to warn workers at Alang about these hazards by pasting notices on the ships. "The message to the ship-breakers is that European owners put them in danger by sending ships with toxic substances on board," said Mr. Kuhlenbaumer.

In addition, the group plans to collect evidence about European companies that do not conform to international regulations that ban toxic dumping and will present this to the International Maritime Organisation, which is scheduled to meet by the end of the year.

This Rainbow Warrior is not the original ship that became famous in the 1980s for its campaigns, particularly against nuclear testing. During a campaign in New Zealand against the French nuclear tests at Moruroa Atoll, the ship sank after French agents planted bombs on it on July 10, 1985. Four years later Greenpeace acquired the Grampian Fame, a 32-year-old oil-rig standby vessel, refitted it and christened it the Rainbow Warrior on the fourth anniversary of the bombing of the original ship.

The last time it docked in Mumbai was in December 1999 as part of the Greenpeace Toxic Free Asia tour.