Published: Monday 15 February 1999

The stand-off between Greenpeace activists and a shipping company at Botany Bay harbour in Sydney, Australia, has come as a wake-up call for South Asian countries where ship-breaking is a growing and for few, a very lucrative industry (Down To Earth, Vol 6, No 20). In a high-pitch drama, activists from Greenpeace and another environmental organisation, Basel Action Network, clung to the bow of the ship Encounter Bay, preventing it from sailing on its last commercial voyage.

The ship, belonging to the German company P&O Nedloyd, was destined to end up in the world's largest ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat, on India's West coast. Greenpeace activists claimed that the ship, containing hazardous wastes such as asbestos and heavy metals, was part of an international conspiracy to dump toxic wastes in Asia. While being broken apart, the ship would have polluted the sea besides harming the health of the workers.

Claiming that the Indian sub-continent had become the final destination for most ships around the world, the Greenpeace activists demanded that the ship be detoxified in Europe before being sent to ship-breaking yards in Asia. According to Lloyd's Shipping Register, apart from warships, there are about 45,000 ocean-goingvessels, including container ships, general cargo ships, tankers, ferries, cruise liners and special ships for research and cable laying. Every year, about 700 of these ships are decommissioned after an average service of 29 years. About 70 per cent of ships are scrapped in India.

In the 1970s, ship-breaking was a highly mechanised operation. During the 1980s, the industry shifted to Asian countries where cheap labour was abundant. In the mid-1980s, half of the world's ship-breaking was done in China, but India soon took over and emerged as the leader in the early 1990s.

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