But the Alang ship-breaking yard - which critics call "India's answer to Dante's Inferno" - needs the contract, officials say, as it battles a downturn in business amid competition from rivals in Bangladesh, China and elsewhere.

  

"It will give a boost to activity," J.R. Jadega, chief engineer of the Gujarat Maritime Board, which runs the shipyard, told AFP on Monday. "The last three years have not been very performing."

  

The dispatch of the Clemenceau warship by the French government to India has sparked fierce controversy in France and in India with critics accusing Paris of dumping its toxic waste on the developing world.

  

International environmental group Greenpeace fought a court battle in France and is vowing one in India to force the Clemenceau to turn around if New Delhi does not reject the ship, which is expected to take up to two months to reach Alang.

  

"France is being incredibly arrogant in sending India its poisonous materials"

Ramapati Kumar, Greenpeace spokesman in India

"France is being incredibly arrogant in sending India its poisonous materials," said Greenpeace spokesman Ramapati Kumar, who is spearheading the anti-Clemenceau fight in India.

  

On Friday, an Indian Supreme Court panel temporarily blocked the ship's entry into Indian waters.

  

According to the French government, the vessel is carrying 45 tonnes of asbestos insulation. According to the firm that helped partially decontaminate it before the trip, the amount is between 500 and 1000 tonnes.

 

The panel said it would make its recommendation to the Supreme Court in two weeks after it got more information.

 

Profitable proposaition

 

Ship-breaking is a costly business
in major  industrialised nations

For major industrialised nations, safety and environmental laws make ship-breaking work hugely costly. But in developing nations, poor enforcement of safety and environmental rules, and a vast supply of cheap labour, can make ship-breaking a profitable proposition.

 

Still, despite these advantages, Alang has fallen on hard times due to high prices of ships for demolition, a glut in the steel scrap market and competition from rival yards, maritime board officials say.

  

Health hazards

 

In the late 1990s, men using gas blowtorches, hacksaws and other basic tools were scrapping some three million tonnes annually. But in the past year, tonnage slumped to one million, said the maritime board's Jadega.

  

By the middle of last year, India's Business Standard reported that just a fifth of the vast complex's 73 scrap plots were busy.

 

The number of workers has fallen to some 3000 to 4000 from 30,000 at its peak, Jadega said.

  

"We have got regulations for that. They have to wear personal protective equipment. We will see that everything is done properly" 

 J.R. Jadega, chief engineer of the Gujarat Maritime Board

He said authorities would "take all the safety measures for the workers and for the environment" in scrapping the 24,000-tonne Clemenceau.

  

"We have got regulations for that. They have to wear personal protective equipment," he said. "We will see that everything is done properly."

  

But Greenpeace says that will not be enough to protect the non-unionised workers from cancer-causing asbestos and the risk of explosions.

  

"These will only be the most basic precautions," said Greenpeace's Kumar. "They're still going to be exposed to a very dangerous situation. There's huge potential for health hazards."