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16 February 2000 - By Nityanand Jayaraman Greenpeace International for Lloyd's List 


Over the last two years, shipbreaking as an industry has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Internationally, the shipbreakingyards in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China are being used as a dumping ground for the hazardous substances thatinevitably go into the construction of the ships. Locally, the lure of scrap ships as a source of cheap steel has led the nationalgovernments and law-enforcement agencies to turn a blind eye, and in some instances even lie on behalf of the shipbreakersabout the inordinate numbers of accidents and deaths among the workers and the rampant pollution caused in the courseof shipbreaking.

People in the shipping industry are aware of the disastrous conditions of work and environment in Asian shipyards. But they chose toadopt a head-in-the-sand approach until the problem exploded in their faces two years ago when Greenpeace exposed the injusticeinherent in the industry. Today, there is a scramble to preserve the industry without compromising the profit margins. Thereare talks of multi-stakeholder solutions. The profit margins of the multinational shipowner is kept in mind; the health and well-being of the shipbreaker who spends more than $1 million to purchase a scrap ship is a priority concern; the government agencies thathad till date failed to uphold the law will be forgiven and more money pumped their way to help them overcome their“infrastructural inadequacies.” Let us hope that, in these talks, the environment that sustains us all and the nameless workerswho sacrifice their lives for the sake of cheap steel are accorded the importance they deserve.

Even three decades ago, old ships were broken in the same yards that they were built in. Hamburg ships were broken in Hamburg;Rotterdam ships were stripped apart in Rotterdam. However, the late 1970s and 1980s brought in new science that exposedthe hazardousness of material – such as asbestos, heavy metal-based paints and anti-foulant paints -- routinely used in ships.With this new understanding came new laws to protect the workers and the environment from undue exposure to these material.Implementation of these laws meant the cost of protecting the worker and the environment had to be worked into theshipbreakers' money outgo.

The result: The industry shut down and moved to the South – to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. Greenpeace has visited theshipbreaking yards in China, India and Bangladesh, and found the environmental and worker situation comparably bad.

For more than a decade, Greenpeace had fought alongside a number of less industrialized countries for the creation of an internationallaw banning the exports of hazardous wastes from the rich industrialized countries to the countries of Asia, Africa andSouth America. This ban is now a reality and is called the Basel Ban, one of the most important components of the BaselConvention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes.

In India, this international convention was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court when it declared in May 1997 that all imports of hazardouswastes into the country will have to be stopped. The Central Pollution Control Board in its guidelines to the shipbreakingindustry instructed the Customs to investigate old ships-for-scrap coming into India for the presence of hazardoussubstances such as asbestos, lead and lead compounds and the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls and prevent shipsthat are contaminated with these substances from reaching our shores. This directive has not been followed.

The hazardous shipbreaking in Alang has already taken its toll in terms of lost or compromised human lives, and a spoilt environment.Unfortunately, the Gujarat Maritime Board, which, even more than the shipbreakers, is seen as remiss in its duty, haschosen to wish the problem away by pretending it doesn't exist. Figures of deaths in the industry are blatantly under-reported.

One senior official at the Gujarat Maritime Board denies that any deaths could have occurred because of exposure to toxins duringshipbreaking. This comment is both inaccurate and irresponsible. Heavy metals and the super-toxin dioxin are known to bereleased during shipbreaking. These are poisons. When people are exposed to these, they get poisoned, regardless of whether theGMB agrees or not.


It is a fact that recovery of steel from old ships is not only environmentally desirable but mandatory. However, Greenpeace and otherenvironmental and labour organizations believe that ships-for-scrap that are sent to Asia must first be decontaminated by theshipowner prior to export. The upgradation of shipbreaking practices in Asia can happen only after foreign countries agree todecontaminate and deal with the hazardous substances found in their ships. If India would like to see the industry survive, theMinistry of Environment must reaffirm its commitment to the Basel Convention and demand that shipowners should decontaminatetheir vessels before exporting them to India.

Thorough independent investigations must be performed at all existing shipbreaking yards in China, Pakistan, India and Bangladeshby a multi-party team consisting of representatives from NGOs, local labour unions, International Labour Organization,International Maritime Organization and the Basel Convention.

A common international program of reform must be instated to ensure that better regulations in India or China do not push dirtyshipbreaking business to Bangladesh, thereby costing more damage to Bangladeshi lives or the environment.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, new ships must be built with a minimum of toxic or hazardous substances and must be built in amodular manner to facilitate easy dismantling.

These initiatives must be taken by the International Maritime Organization, an agency that regulates virtually every aspect of shippingexcept the fate of old ships.

In its efforts to highlight the dangers of shipbreaking in Asia, and particularly India, Greenpeace is not alone. Working with us is agroup of dedicated organizations including major trade unions like the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, the All India Trade UnionCongress and national environmental coalitions like the Basel Action Network (India).

The object of our struggle is to make shipowners take responsibility of their hazardous wastes by decontaminating the ships prior toexport to Asia, and to ensure that shipbreaking in Asia is not done at the expense of human lives and the environment. To achievethis, we will come forward with suggestions and enter negotiations. Most importantly, we will resort again and again to non-violent direct action to ensure that commitments are honoured and that words translate into action.

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