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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 12:21 GMT
Asbestos test for 'graveyard of ships'

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Alang, Gujarat

Alang, on the coast of Gujarat in western India, is known as the graveyard of ships. It has been the last port of call for thousands of ships from around the world.

Workers in Alang
The work is tough and can be dangerous

And this is where the Clemenceau, a controversial decommissioned warship and one-time pride of the French navy, is heading - unless the Indian Supreme Court agrees with the environmental group, Greenpeace.

Greenpeace says the Clemenceau is laden with hundreds of tonnes of toxic asbestos and should not be allowed to dock here because it will harm the workers' health as it is broken up.

That is hotly disputed by the Gujarat Maritime Board, which leases out the yards to the ship-breakers.

It says they are equipped to handle the waste on the ship.

'Specially trained'

"Each ship breaking yard has a special area nominated for collecting waste and the workers are trained in how to handle it, how to treat it and how to finally dispose it," the maritime board's Captain Kiritsinh Gohil says.

"We've got specially trained people with special equipment to handle asbestos."

Greenpeace questions this claim and is demanding the French take back the Clemenceau.

The Supreme Court is due to give its verdict on Monday.

While environmentalists hold daily protest demonstrations, the Gujarat Maritime Board has refused to allow any photographers inside the yards, saying they are already suffering from too much negative publicity.

Environmentalists' campaigns and a change in the tax structure have resulted in a huge decline in the industry.

Today Alang resembles a ghost town - cranes idle along empty beaches, roads are deserted and only around 5,000 people work here compared with a peak of 40,000.

The aircraft carrier Clemenceau
The 32,000 ton Clemenceau has served France well

Only 15 or so of the 173 ship breaking yards are operational.

The rest have shut up shop in the last two years and the future of the industry is bleak.

Many of the ship breaking contracts have been lost to yards in China, Pakistan and Bangladesh where the environmental standards are much looser, the maritime board says.

"We may not survive this year. Business is very bad," says Raj Bhansal, the president of the Ship Recycling Industries' Association.

"It costs even to keep the place running. We can't afford it any longer."

Gopal Gupta, who travelled Uttar Pradesh to find work at Alang, confirms that times are hard: "I've been coming here for the past six years. Earlier everyone could find work here. Today I can find work only 15 days a month. The rest of the time I have to sell peanuts."

Tough work

The Diamond Industries yard is one of those still operating. On the day I visited 45 men were working under the scorching midday sun, breaking machinery retrieved from the ships with hammers.

Greenpeace banner at Alang
Greenpeace is an unwelcome presence in Alang

Two men hosed the yard with seawater to reduce the dust.

Work in this labour intensive industry can be hazardous and official records show at least 50 workers died in the yards between 2002 and 2004.

Board officials say a lot of emphasis is now laid on the workers' safety.

The use of protective gear combined with compulsory training for workers has reduced the number of accidents here to almost nil, they say.

It is a situation full of irony. Local Greenpeace activist in nearby Bhavnagar, Shambhu Nakrani, agrees with the maritime board, and thinks his own organisation's campaign is misguided.

"I lost my brother to an explosion in a ship a few years ago and ever since I have made it my mission to work for improving the lot of the workers.

"The conditions are much better now, the workers receive safety gear and training and their work and pay are regulated."

Labourers at Alang agree the Greenpeace campaign has improved their working conditions but blame Greenpeace for the decline in the industry and the lack of jobs. Anti-Greenpeace banners dot the skyline of Alang.

Officials admit the decision on the Clemenceau will not make or break Alang.

But they are desperately hoping to receive some tax breaks in the forthcoming budget and hope it will restore Alang's position.

They say unless a serious attempt is made to revive the industry, the graveyard of ships will itself die.

See the aircraft carrier at the centre of the row

France will 'take back asbestos'
08 Feb 06 |  South Asia
Stay out, India tells toxic ship
06 Jan 06 |  South Asia
Greenpeace opposes India shipyard
07 Apr 05 |  South Asia

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