New Indian Express – Locals up in Arms against SILK Ship-breaking Unit

(Written by Sucheth P R)

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26 May 2014 - KANNUR: Thirty years ago when they were children they rushed to the seashore to witness the arrival of a vessel to the ship-breaking yard of Steel Industrials Kerala Ltd (SILK) at Azheekkal, located near the estuary where the Valapattanam river falls into the Arabian Sea, 11 km from here.

Now, as they take part in a relay hunger strike against ship breaking, sitting under a shamiana on the side of the road leading to SILK, they contemplate with a heavy heart how in three decades’ time the yard has shattered their expectations by polluting the earth, air and water.  Speaking to Express on Wednesday, District Collector P Balakiran revealed that the ship- breaking unit didn’t have licences of the Pollution Control Board and the civic body. He  added the SILK management had been asked to obtain the within a week.

The anti-shipbreaking committee has locked horns with the Joint Council of Trade Unions, represented by the CITU, INTUC and the STU. Political parties have declared that they are determined to save SILK, a public sector undertaking that had been making good profit over the last few years after a period of crisis.

But leaders of the strike argue that SILK could be saved even if it stopped ship breaking and undertook other construction projects and continued building and boats and vessels. The unit started ship breaking in 1984 and over the last three decades it has dismantled 30 ships.

International NGO Greenpeace said in 2003 that the ship breaking at Azheekkal was going to be as dangerous as that in the yards at Alang in Gujarat, the world’s largest ship-breaking centre.

SILK officials say all arguments of the action committee were baseless and that the unit started dismantled ships only after obtaining all necessary certificates.

“The Port Department and Customs Department have approved the ship-breaking procedures and we are always vigilant to adhere to environmental protection norms. We will be allowed to break a ship only after the physical examination of these aspects is completed by the port officer,” unit manager P Manoharan said.

He said people affected with diseases like asthma were falsely projected as victims of pollution caused by the ship-breaking unit.

But Shajahan, convener of the committee, said: “The Basel convention of the United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation have issued several guidelines regarding the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste and its dumping especially in regard to the dismantling of old ships but all such stipulations are totally flouted here. An activity like dumping of hazardous materials should never be carried out in a densely populated area like Azheekkal which has immense ecological significance too. Most of the workers at the ship-breaking unit here are migrant labourers from Gujarat, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha who seem to be little aware of the health hazards,” he said. “The living conditions of these workers accommodated amid heaps of hazardous waste are appalling. Moreover, the ships are dismantled not after dragging them to the shore, which is mandatory. All waste is mixed in the river,” said committee chairman M K Manoharan.

Maritime legal expert V M Syam Kumar said though India was not party to any international treaty on ship breaking, the Supreme Court in the Exxon Valdez case had made it clear that the county was bound to follow all norms of the Basel convention. “While dealing with an ownership dispute over a ship brought for dismantling I came to know that the unit in Azheekkal was not following many norms,” he said.

Fisherfolk who say the fish stock in the river and its estuary has become almost nil are the worst-hit. According to them, long prawn, crab and some other fishes unique to the region,  which they used to export have vanished. Many of the fishermen have take up other jobs. “We are disappointed that despite repeated pleas, the government has not yet appointed an expert committee to study the grave issue affecting our livelihood,” said Araya Samajam president K P Madanan. The Azeekkal Boat Owners Association, Valakkar Sangam, Fishermen Health Council and the Kerala Fish Merchants Association have extended support to the stir.

Major health hazards the locals complain about are respiratory problems, skin deceases and eye disorders.

The activists said that asbestos, arsenic, lead, chromium, organotins, dioxins and poly cycleic aromatic hydro carbon compounds that get mixed in river as a result of the ship breaking process can cause everything from itching in the eyes to cancer and genetic disorders. A Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad team which visited Silk said ship breaking could be carried out provided absolute transparency was maintained in the operations.

Though political parties except the BJP, RMP and the SDPI pooh-pooh the arguments of environmentalists, members of almost all parties make their presence felt on the protest front.

Hence, agitators are often seen blocking and questioning people’s representatives and political leaders who drop by to express their “solidarity”. Protesters had laid siege to the unit’s entrance, preventing truck movement.  As the latest rounds of talks with the District Collector turned fruitless, the committee is planning to go ahead with the stir consolidating popular support from various quarters.