Gujarat government should decide fate of Oriental Nicety: MoEF to Supreme Court
The controversial US vessel, Oriental Nicety, is still anchored off Mumbai's shore after being denied entry into Indian territorial waters by the Supreme Court of India over a month ago. The government agencies, meanwhile, seem to be keen to let the dead ship beach on Gujarat's coast for dismantling.
On June 25, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests filed an affidavit before the vacation bench of the Supreme Court stating that the entry of the controversial ship was a matter to be decided by the Gujarat authorities and not the Union government. Activists see this move to bring the matter to the notice of the vacation bench without waiting for the case to be heard in the regular course as an attempt to push for the ship's beaching at Alang at the earliest. Environmentalists are demanding that the ship be turned back as it is a public health hazard and made up of toxic materials like asbestos, glasswool and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The vacation bench of justices H L Gokhale and Ranjana Prakash Desai ordered the case to be placed on July 9 before the appropriate bench and not a vacation bench. Advocate for Gujarat Maritime Board, a respondent, sought time to make a specific statement on follow up measures to be taken. The court, meanwhile, gave the petitioner time till the next date of hearing for filing a response. The petitioner in this case is Gopal Krishna of the Toxicswatch Alliance—a network of environmental activists.
Krishna welcomed the vacation bench's decision to refer the matter to the original bench. He said this is the second time the apex court has been approached in connection with the case during vacation. The ship's owners—Hongkong-based Best Oasis company, subsidiary of Gujarat based Priya Blue Ship Recycling Pvt Ltd—had approached the vacation bench for relief on May 14 by moving an application seeking permission to apply for certification that the ship is free of hazardous waste. Krishna also questioned the environment ministry's affidavit. The focal ministry for ship-breaking is the ministry of steel, as per earlier Supreme Court orders dated October 14, 2003 and September 6, 2007, passed in connection with the ongoing case on ship-breaking. So, why should the environment ministry intervene? he asked.
Krishna said the continued presence of the dead US ship in Indian waters off Mumbai coast is a violation of the court’s order. The bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and J Chelameswar had denied Oriental Nicety entry into Indian territorial waters by citing the Basel convention and Indian laws that require vessels that are to be dismantled here to be decontaminated and cleaned in the country of origin. The apex court had sought compliance with UN’s Basel Convention to which India is a signatory while refusing berthing permission to the dead ship formerly known as Exxon Valdez, said to have been responsible for the 1989 oil spill in Alaska.
According to Krishna a perusal of the Supreme Court orders dated June 25, May 3 and May 14 and other documents, including the application of Best Oasis company, seeking permission to anchor Exxon Valdez at Alang, shows that the US vessel does not comply with US laws, Indian laws and international laws and the court's orders.
His petition against the entry of Oriental Nicety is part of the ongoing case on ship breaking and hazardous waste management in the supreme court; this case was filed in 1995. The inter-ministerial committee on ship-breaking set up through this order happens to be under the steel ministry. The committee has made many recommendations which have been filed in the court. But these recommendations have not been complied with by Gujarat Maritime Board and Gujarat Pollution Control Board, said Krishna.
Ship-breakers' lives at risk
Sanjay Parekh, Senior advocate in the Supreme court, representing Toxicswatch Alliance, said the authorities seem to view ships coming to India for dismantling as just ships for recycling unlike environmentalists who see them as threat to public health. “This is one of the reasons why authorities never monitor or record contaminants and toxins on the ship, which are inbuilt,” says Parekh.
Recent media reports said that the inspection of Oriental Nicety showed no chemicals on board. But then the hazardous materials are used for constructing the ship’s engine and boiler areas and some cabins and walls. PCBs are also used in the ship's construction.
Rohit Prajapati, an environmentalist from Gujarat agreed with Parekh. “The authorities look at the issue of ship-breaking and all hazards attached to it as only a matter of paper work,” he said.
Atul Sharma, senior environmental engineer with the Gujarat Maritime Board, said there is no reason why the ships should not be allowed to come in. “This is all a trial and error method and we are taking all due precautions.” He added that the ship-breaking yard at Alang has been provided with a hazardous waste management division as well as an asbestos management division. He said the death ratio of the workers on site has been reduced to zero. Sharma said that ships require to be broken at the end of their life and thus all that is required is due caution.
Prajapati disagreed. He said every month there are cases of workers’ exposure to toxins or contamination of the sea, but that no records are kept. “The ship yard does not even have a hospital or government health clinic to provide the required aid to workers on site,” he said. All cases of accidents are sent to private hospitals and no records are maintained. Prajapati said he has attempted to aid and assist the workers in the ship-yards and also gain access to the ships in order to gauge the amount of toxins on board, but has repeatedly been denied permission.
Another ship on way
Meanwhile, another dead ship is headed towards India. The US flagged ship, Delaware Trader, was cleared by the US Maritime Administration for dismantling at Alang in Gujarat. It is expected to reach India in the coming days. It was last reported at the port of Maputo in Mozambique on June 13. Toxicswatch Alliance has demanded that this ship, too, should be turned away.
Krishna said these toxic ships are allowed to enter India even if they violate the laws of the country of origin. As per the US toxic substances control Act, no trade is permitted in PCBs. But ships containing PCBs seem to be allowed to come to their grave in developing countries like India.