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Going overboard

The debate over the dismantling of the Clemenceau in India has done well to bring into focus issues of worker safety. But it is unfair that the shipbreaking industry is being condemned

india Updated: Jan 19, 2006 00:24 IST

The forthcoming arrival of the old French aircraft carrier, Clémenceau, has incited much questioning and anxiety, but has also generated expectations and hopes in India.

I well understand these preoccupations — they are legitimate — after all, the ship still contains asbestos, even though the amount is minuscule and the little that remains has been completely neutralised; and everyone knows that this substance, which was widely used in the past, can be dangerous. My government is well aware of this, and French norms guiding the conditions in which asbestos has to be eliminated, are strict. The expectations and hopes are equally legitimate, considering the real conditions in which the Clémenceau is arriving.

The French aircraft carrier is not bringing dangerous products to India, but is coming here to be dismantled so that the thousands of tonnes of steel that make up its hull may be salvaged and recycled by the Indian steel industry. The aircraft carrier has been completely emptied and decontaminated of all the potentially dangerous products it contained, so that the dismantling could be easier and safer. This procedure, which is being used for the first time, shows the genuineness of the guarantees offered by France.

Asbestos poses a particular problem: the Clémenceau was constructed half a century ago, when naval constructions made considerable use of asbestos, particularly for warships. However, there were two kinds of asbestos on board: friable or flaky asbestos, the fibres of which are harmful for human health, and asbestos included in other materials. All the friable asbestos that is directly accessible without involving any cutting, has been removed in France in the shipyards of Toulon. The idea was to remove as much of the asbestos as possible without rendering the structure of the ship so fragile as to affect its capacity to navigate. We know the quantity of asbestos that thus remains on board — around 45 tonnes — and its location.

Right from the beginning, the French government has committed itself to being vigilant that the protection of the workers in Alang, who would be involved in the removal of the products containing asbestos, be ensured in accordance with the strictest European norms, the very ones that applied to the workers of the French shipyard that removed the visible friable asbestos.

The operation of dismantling as a whole will take place under the supervision of French engineers, who will also effect a complete transfer of technology in the domain of security and the handling of products containing asbestos. Indian engineers and technicians have already been trained in France, including at the shipyard of the Clémenceau. Specialised equipment of the latest technology will, of course, be delivered as equipment for the shipyard workers. An internationally-recognised, independent organisation will monitor the process and ensure that the commitments undertaken by the French government are respected.

The sense of responsibility shown by these arrangements regarding the risks linked to decontamination operations, corresponds to the choice we have made for the dismantling of the ship. India is a large democracy and has regulations guiding the dismantling of ships, a judiciary vigilant about the enforcement of these regulations and an alert civil society. India also possesses qualified and certified shipyards, which are unjustly disparaged. If we had wished to conduct an illegal and surreptitious operation, would we have chosen India?

I am glad that, next Friday, we shall have the opportunity of presenting these realities before the experts of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee, which desires to give us a hearing after having heard out the representatives of a French company, Technopure, which was unable to fulfil its contractual obligations. It was, therefore, necessary to overcome their failures by resorting to the services of another company. I fear, having lost in French courts, the contradictory and fanciful declarations of Technopure were governed by questionable motives.

As I was saying at the beginning, the Clémenceau represents hope: the dismantling of our old flagship can become an excellent example of all that is possible, and in my opinion, necessary, to do today by way of taking precautions against industrial activities likely to harm the environment and human health. The exceptionally drastic measures adopted by France in the case of Clémenceau should become the norm of all responsible States. Shipyards that are unscrupulous about their workers and the surrounding populations must be done away with. It is certainly possible to do this without condemning an industry, legitimate in itself.

France is prepared to contribute to this evolution and delighted that this issue has been thrown open for a well-informed and balanced debate.

The writer is the Ambassador of France to India

First Published: Jan 19, 2006 00:24 IST