Another Alang in the making

Andhra Pradesh is in choppy waters over a proposed ship breaking yard at Vodarevu

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Saturday 15 December 2001

 Wrecking the environment: Guj (Credit: Manish tiwari / cse)even as the controversy generated by Gujarat's highly polluting Alang shipbreaking yard refuses to die down, Andhra Pradesh is clearing the decks for a similar unit to be located in its fragile coastal belt.

The proposal for the yard at Vodarevu near Chirala of Prakasam district was given the technical green light on September 3, 2001, by the Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (apspcb). Ironically, in February 2000, the apspcb had ordered the company -- Andhra Sea Ports Limited (aspl) -- to stop all construction activity. The board had then voiced its concern over the high degree of health and environment hazards posed by shipbreaking.

"The order stated that such work would involve handling and disposal of large quantities of carcinogenic asbestos fibre, release of polychlorinated biophenyls and heavy metals, and generation of toxins. Apart from this, there would be emission of dioxins during cutting and burning operations," says J Rama Rao, chairperson, Forum for a Better Hyderabad, a non-governmental organisation.

aspl is expected to set up a shipbreaking unit with a capacity to handle about 240 ships per annum in 60 plots. "This would churn out approximately 3,000 tonnes of steel scrap every day," adds Rao. That the proposed yard would fall in the Coastal Regulation Zone (crz) is another reason why it should not be allowed to get off the starting blocks.

crz is a demarcation by the Union government of the coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters that are influenced by tidal action. Restrictions are imposed on the setting up and expansion of industries, operations or processes in these areas.

Why then has the pollution control board taken a u-turn? "Earlier, permission had been refused for the shipbreaking unit because aspl did not submit either an environmental impact assessment (eia) or an environment management plan (emp)," says Tishya Chatterjee, apspcb 's member secretary. The company swung into action and hired the Ranchi-based Metallurgical and Engineering Consultants (India) Limited (mecon) for the purpose. Subsequently, it complied with the board's directives. "We have no other option now, but to give them the technical go-ahead, subject to clearance under crz regulations and a Union government nod," adds Chatterjee. eia and emp are mandatory studies that determine the environmental feasibility of a project.

The case is now with the Shore Area Development Authority (sada), which has constituted a technical committee to check the project's compliance with crz regulations. A decision is expected on the issue soon. It is felt that sada, a state government body that regulates activities in the crz, may be under pressure from the state government to approve the unit's construction. "Since this is its own project, the state government cannot renege on its words and stall work," says Chatterjee.

mecon, which is advising aspl, had earlier conducted a study on the pollution levels at Alang and concluded that pollution has considerably increased in the shipbreaking yard (see Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 20, March 15, 1998). The report pointed out that a host of pollutants such as asbestos, paint, scrap debris, gaskets, glass wool, oil grease and cement have found their way into the marine environment near Alang.

As many as 45,000 workers grapple with hazardous wastes in the Gujarat yard. Numerous accidents have taken place in the past. Ravi Agarwal, a member of Basel Action Network -- a group of organisations working on hazardous wastes -- and head of non-governmental organisation Toxic Links, points out that there is not much improvement in the ground situation at the unit. Only cosmetic changes have been made under public pressure.

So, will Vodarevu be any different?

Apparently, aspl has submitted a very elaborate emp . For instance, it lists a clause dealing with the removal of paint layers on shipside and other steel structures by using portable grinders with self-contained dust-catching systems. Whether such detailed procedures will find a life outside printed pages is debatable.

"I have my apprehensions whether all the clauses mentioned in the emp will be implemented," says a skeptical Agarwal. "The process of clearance is in itself dubious -- there have been no negotiations, no participation of civil society. And the research done on Alang has not been referred to," he adds.

"All the conditions in the eia cannot be implemented. Anyway the pcb is ill-equipped and lacks the technical competence to monitor and enforce the stipulated preventive and control measures," points out Rao. Chatterjee rues the fact that the board's watchdog capability is hamstrung by its lack of teeth. "All we can do is cut off their electricity supply. But they can continue to run on generators," he laments.

One thing is clear: by okaying such projects, the authorities are stretching the environment to breaking point.

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