Friday, January 13, 2006

Will the Clemenceau Come to Alang

“What do you do when a 27,000 ton ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ heads towards a vulnerable target?” asks this Greenpeace article. This provocative question refers to the decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which set sail recently from French shores, headed towards the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat, India. In Greenpeace’s eyes the simple question above has an equally simple answer: stop the ship from reaching India.

According to Greenpeace, the primary reason that the ship should be stopped from reaching India is that it carries up to 500 tons of hazardous asbestos. The French government officially claims that much of the asbestos has already been removed and only about 45 tons of asbestos still remains on board. This French government document also states that the Indian companies selected for dismantling the Clemenceau are competent (have received international certification) and some of their technical people have even been given suitable training in France.

I think that Greenpeace and others who are opposed to the Clemenceau coming to Alang have the best of intentions and have done a commendable job in highlighting the problems and the hazardous nature of the ship-breaking industry. However I believe that they are guilty of over-simplifying the issue. In a world of harsh realities, things are not always as black-and-white as they appear on the surface.

There is a fundamental assumption made by Greenpeace that if the workers in Alang are not exposed to hazardous materials from the Clemenceau, they will not be exposed to any other hazards whatsoever. Ideally everybody should be able to work in a completely safe and comfortable environment, but obviously that’s not the reality in India today. It is quite possible that if the Clemenceau is not allowed to come to Alang numerous workers will have to take other jobs that are no less hazardous and may well be lower paying. According to William Langwiesche, who has written an excellent story on Alang, the workers there are “… migrants from the distant states of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. They toiled under shipyard supervisors, typically from their home states or villages, who dispensed the jobs, generally in return for a cut from the workers' already meager pay. The workers chose to work nonetheless, because the alternatives were worse.” And here’s what Dilip D’Souza has to say. “Even though the Greenpeace report is concerned with worker safety and health, Pritam [a foreman from Bihar] and the workers didn't speak of it with any fondness. Partly because of Greenpeace efforts, Alang is losing business steadily -- remember, just 35 occupied plots out of over 160. Jobs here are drying up and workers are returning to their states. ….. Yes, the conditions in Alang leave me appalled. Yet there's a small army working hard here, earning their wages hard. Yes, measly wages -- what's two dollars a day ? Yet that's more than the workers can hope for at home, and this industry is the bedrock of an entire region's economy. …. Some very old Indian dilemmas here.”

Clearly the demand for stopping the Clemenceau is not something that has originated from the workers on the ground in Alang. Nor does it appear that this demand is strongly supported by them.

Considering that it is not easy for unskilled workers in India to get steady jobs and they often have whole families in distant villages to support, will Greenpeace help those workers who lose jobs or are forced to work for lower wages ? If Greenpeace is so concerned about the safety of workers in Alang why does it not use its worldwide resources to procure hazardous material handling gear such as protective suits, masks, etc., and train Alang workers in the use of such equipment. That would be the ideal solution. Workers would avoid exposure to hazardous material while at the same time retaining their source of livelihood.

It is right to be concerned about workers in Alang being exposed to dangerous asbestos from the Clemenceau, but why is Greenpeace not concerned about other workers in India who are regularly exposed to asbestos from other sources. As this excellent article in the Indian Express points out, India imports nearly 150,000 tons of asbestos annually. Why does Greenpeace not protest against this trade with as much vehemence and energy as it does on the Clemenceau issue ?

In India there are millions of people who are engaged in hazardous and back-breaking work – in many cases much worse than the workers at Alang. Consider for example people who work in stone quarries breaking stones and who commonly suffer from silicosis, or in brick-kilns, or as manual scavengers. Why is Greenpeace not concerned about these other workers as much as it is about Alang workers ? Workers in Alang at least have a semblance of an organized safety infrastructure.

I am not arguing that we should not worry about working conditions in Alang just because there are other people in India whose working conditions are much worse. Of course we should be concerned, and Greenpeace and other organizations deserve credit for bringing these issues to the world’s attention. But we should not put so much pressure as to significantly reduce employment opportunities in the ship-breaking industry – at least as long as it remains difficult to get alternative employment elsewhere. We need to balance the need to prevent hazardous material from coming to Alang with the need to grow – or at least maintain – employment opportunities that the ship-breaking yard provides. What right do we (or Greenpeace) have to decide for a worker what is a suitable trade-off between a regular job and the hazard of possible asbestos exposure ?

It seems to me that in the minds of Greenpeace and its supporters the workers in Alang are so ignorant and/or so stupid that they don't have the basic ability (and therefore should not have the right) to decide for themselves what risks to take in their pursuit of better livelihoods. I don't think that what ultimately happens to the workers in Alang is a major concern for Greenpeace. For them the Clemenceau incident is simply something they can use to generate publicity and prove a point in a larger Europe-centered political and philosophical debate. If Greenpeace is actually concerned about workers in ship-breaking yards in India, it should be more practical and should keep harsh realties in mind, even if it sometimes means compromising on matters of principle.

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future the rapidly growing Indian economy will generate so many better and safer jobs that the ship-breaking industry will have to improve working conditions significantly in order to attract workers, or will just die a natural death.


Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

On a related note, see this.

August 01, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Del Stanton said...

Insightful article. I appreciate the point of view. Ship breaking is a frightening industry, but so is life in abject poverty with little or no opportunity to provide for one's self and family.
Access to information in this modern world shows us some things we would rather not see, but it also gives us the ability to relate to those in underdeveloped countries. We need to see these things and not become polarized.we should seek,instead,to understand that the world is not black and white. In order for me to have my own laptop, house, internet access, and shop for better prices in a free economy, I must realize that someone somewhere is suffering. Wouldn't it be great if we all found a way to help change things instead of vehemently speaking out in ignorance of the larger problem the way that Greenpeace often does.

February 02, 2010 9:11 AM  

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