The Hindu – Ship owners must bear liability

12 July 2003 - Fourteen persons died and dozens were injured in three major explosions in the ship-breaking yard at Alang on the Gujarat coast, between February and May this year.

The deaths were documented but what went unnoticed were the health hazard faced by the hundreds of workers, who are exposed to the effect of “unsafe practises” at the workplace and the environmental damage caused due to ship-scrapping.

Of about 90 per cent of the “out-of-use” western sea vessels that eventually end up along the shoreline of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, or along the river banks in China, where they are scrapped by the local workers, as much as 60 per cent is dismantled at the Alang ship-breaking yard.

A greater part of the larger ships, such as tankers, are scrapped in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The number of ships for scrapping is expected to increase significantly in the coming years and so has the demand for a sound solution for scrapping problem.

The issue of the activity at Alang was taken up at an international seminar “Scrapping ships in Asia and the liability regime” held at Amsterdam recently.

The interaction was organised before the International Maritime Organisation finalises guidelines for scrapping later this month.

An important step in regulating the scrapping of ships in Asia was drafted during the Treaty of Basel, to which India is a signatory, though it is yet to show positive results.

The Supreme Court on May 5, 1997 passed a directive that “no import would be made or permitted by any authority or any person of any hazardous waste that is already banned under the Basel Convention, or to be banned hereafter.”

According to the Environmental Justice Initiative, which raised the matter at the seminar, the liability in case of hazardous substances had been tremendous but the same fell short in dealing with the complex environmental and labour situations involved in the ship-breaking activity.

There was a need for new regulations to be developed to ensure that ship-owners and ship exporters bear the full liability of ship-breaking and that every signatory should have domestic laws to support better and effective implementation of the guidelines, being developed internationally, on ship-breaking.

Enough precedent had been set by the Indian judiciary to put the liability of handling hazardous substances on the owner of such facilities, which proves that any ship that come to India laden with hazardous material for scrapping, the responsibility of its decontamination lies with the owners, the Environmental Justice Initiative representative, Sunita Dubey said.

The Hazardous Waste (Management and Handling) Amendment Act, 2000, bans import and export of hazardous wastes from or to any country, while the Central Pollution Control Board guidelines on ship-breaking makes it mandatory for the State Maritime Board to certify that vessel is free from prohibited materials such as waste asbestos lead and lead compounds.

Further, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1958, the Indian Coast Guard Act, 1978 and the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991 have provisions for checking the `in-coming’ and `out-going’ of hazardous materials.

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