Confusing Verdict by India's Supreme Court 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Disregarding orders it had previously issued regarding the import of toxic end-of-life ships (May 3, 2012) and shipbreaking (July 6, 2012), on July 30, 2012, India's Supreme Court allowed a notorious 213,000-tonne tanker, once called the Exxon Valdez, into the country for dismantling at the Alang ship-breaking yard.1 In 1989, the then three-year old, 300-meter-long vessel caused one of the world's worst environmental disasters when it spilled millions of gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska.2 Since then it has had a chequered history with many owners and name changes including: Exxon Mediterranean and Oriental Nicety. It has sailed under the flags of the U.S., Panama and Sierra Leone; however, it arrived in Indian territorial waters as a flagless ship since the validity of the Sierra Leone certification had expired. The Exxon Valdez could contain a cocktail of hazardous substances such as asbestos, PCBs, mercury, arsenic, toxic paints and chemical residues.

The fifteen page judgment by Justices Altamas Kabir and J. Chelameswar in a case brought by ToxicsWatch Alliance against the Indian Government was an indeterminate mix of good and bad. A press release issued by The Shipbreaking Platform, a European NGO, hailed the decision with the headline: Exxon Valdez prompts India's Supreme Court to blow whistle on toxic shipbreaking beaches:3

“This ruling means that India can no longer accept ships from Europe or the United States. It also means that India must first be notified as to all hazardous materials contained on-board and must approve of ship importation from all sources for scrapping prior to vessel arrival in India. Previous to this decision and despite India being a Party to the Basel Convention, India has long ignored its Basel legal obligations with respect to ships.”4

What the Court gave with one hand, however, it took away with the other. The downside of its verdict was that although international obligations would be honoured in the future, in this case they would be ignored: “… [we] direct the concerned authorities to allow the ship in question to beach and to permit the ship owner to proceed with the dismantling of the ship, after complying with all the requirements of the Gujarat Maritime Board, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.” In an attempt perhaps to counter the potential ill-effects of the scrapping of the ship, the Court mandated that “if any toxic wastes embedded in the ship structure are discovered during its dismantling, the concerned authorities shall take immediate steps for their disposal at the cost of the owner of the vessel, M/s Best Oasis, Ltd., or its nominee or nominees.”

If India's Supreme Court is as good as its word, it could prove problematic for European Union (EU) ship-owners who are pressing for a more flexible interpretation of the Basel Convention as evinced by recently proposed ship recycling regulations which aim to “remove ships from existing legislation that forbids export of hazardous wastes from Europe to developing countries” as sanctioned by the Hong Kong Convention. That the EU could even be considering such a retrograde step is a travesty of all the high-minded clichés mouthed by Brussels bureaucrats. This controversial shift in EU policy will be a focal point of discussions next month amongst asbestos victims support groups, health and safety campaigners and trade unionists who will be meeting in Brussels to lobby their MEPs and participate in a Parliamentary hearing on asbestos.

August 13, 2012


1 Press release. Illegality of flagless Exxon Valdez condoned, July 30 judgement bans future toxic ships. ToxicsWatchAlliance.
(May 3 and July 6, 2012 regarding end-of-life ships and shipbreaking).

2Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Facts.


4 The verdict's wording was: “…in all future cases of a similar nature, the concerned authorities shall strictly comply with the norms laid down in the Basel Convention or any other subsequent provisions that may be adopted by the Central Government in aid of a clean and pollution free maritime environment, before permitting entry of any vessel suspected to be carrying toxic and hazardous material into Indian territorial waters.” If this ruling is enforced, and there is no guarantee this will happen, it could mean the end to India's shipbreaking industry. However, given that 8% of India's annual supply of steel comes from shipbreaking, this is unlikely. See: Minter A. The Exxon Valdez's Eco-Friendly Afterlife. August 2, 2012.



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