Several trade unions on Thursday vowed to protest against the India-bound French warship Clemenceau, believed to be riddled with potentially toxic asbestos, during President Jacques Chirac's visit in the third week of February.
The aircraft carrier left France in December for the massive Alang ship breaking yard amid protests from the environmental group, Greenpeace. The Supreme Court has, however, barred it from entering the country's waters until it examines an expert report by its monitoring committee on hazardous waste.
If allowed, it is expected to arrive in India in the first week of March. But leaders belonging to the All India Trade Congress, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions and the New Trade Union Initiative told a news conference in New Delhi that they believed France had misled India about the levels of hazardous material contained in the vessel after it left that country.
"The French government has been misleading Indian authorities about the amount of asbestos and other toxics substances present in the structure of the Clemenceau. We therefore will hold protests during Chirac's visit," CITU Secretary P K Ganguly said.
He was referring to French claims that the most dangerous work - the removal of 115 tons of brittle asbestos - had been carried out in France and that the remaining 45 tons of asbestos had to be kept in place to keep the ship seaworthy on its final journey.
AITUC Deputy Secretary H Mahadevan said his union would oppose attempts to make India what he called a 'dumping ground for richer countries' toxic waste'.
With safety standards at the Alang yard being notoriously low, hundreds of tons of toxic asbestos contained in the French ship could pose a potential risk to the health of scrap workers, he said.
"We plan to hold protests during the French President's visit. Also, we will hold demonstrations at the French Embassy and in Gujarat," he remarked.
NTUI Secretary-Member D Thankappan, who also accused France of downplaying risks associated with asbestos handling, alleged that a select lobby was supporting the Clemenceau's entry to India for its vested interests. Greece and Turkey have already rejected the 26,000-tonne giant warship.
Environmentalists say older vessels, in particular, present a devil's brew of toxins, from asbestos insulation of engines and decks to acids and heavy metals in paints and coatings.
In 2004, the signatories of the 1989 Basel convention, which regulates the transport of hazardous waste, agreed that a ship bound for demolition could be considered such material, and hence is subject to strict rules on its movements.
France is a Basel signatory, but its courts have ruled that, because the Clemenceau is 'war equipment,' they have no jurisdiction to rule whether or not it qualifies as waste.