The Docks of Death :Alang: Asia’s biggest ship-breaking yard

When prosperity comes at the cost of nature, the prices to be paid sometimes are too high. That is what one could derive from the situation at Alang. The ship-breaking yard near Bhavnagar in Gujarat is supposed to be the largest of its kind in Asia. What was once the peacefully picturesque coasts of western Gujarat, turned almost at the wink of an eye into a busy bustling giant junkyard in 1983, when Alang was commissioned for dismantling “decommissioned” ships, as they are called after being declared unusable. It was a story of dream-come-true for the ship-breakers, their employees and all other associated industries for the next 2 decades. The yard reached its peak in 1997-98 with all of its 180 plots, as the individual yards are referred to as, fully functional and ready to cater to nearly 350 ships. At that time the yards employed more than 40,000 workers, ho hardly fell short of work.

But then things started changing, almost as if at the wave of some black magic wand. A mere statistic would reveal the situation. Up to December 2005, there were only 73 ships waiting to be broken at 26 of the plots, which are still functional with just around 4,000 workers. The associated industries too, like the oil reprocessing units, steel re-rolling mills, iron scrap, oxygen plants, foundries and the many kilometers of shops dealing in goods from the ships, have been severely hit. 80% of the steel re-rolling plants have closed down because of the poor flow of basic materials from the yards. Only 12% of the oxygen cylinder plants are still operational because of the drop in demand for metal cutting. It is almost a same story for the transport industry. But ship-breaking as an industry continues to thrive worldwide. The question therefore is, what cursed Asia’s biggest ship-breaking yard?

It is a common public misconception, a convenient excuse indeed, that the rules imposed by the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC) on hazardous wastes are responsible for killing the trade at Alang. The Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA), India admits it, and states that the policies laid down by the state and central governments have been largely responsible for the sharp drop in India’s share in ship-recycling activities, the major factors being unfavourable duty structures, additional tax burdens and concessions given to the steel industry in Kutch. The yards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and China, as they claim, are not only less particulars about international regulations, but, more significantly, have the support of their governments a far as tax structures and concessions are concerned, and are thereby gaining from this decline of Alang. An additional burden of 5% customs duty, which is higher than the scrap melting industry, has helped this competition of ship-breaking take a few steps ahead. Similarly, the Kutch factor, a 15-year long complete exemption from central and state taxes for the steel industry in Kutch, has pushed Alang long steps behind in the competition.

But keeping the tax factors aside, it seems to be the environmental regulations imposed on them that bug the SRIA most. The association is antagonistic towards Greenpeace, Ban Asbestos and other NGOs, who enforce the rigid norms of the First World standards on them. While accepting that the regulations are essential, SRIA believes that they are a bit too heavy on our economic situation, and the prices being paid for them are even heavier. India, in fact, is the only Asian country that lets Greenpeace have its say, and ensures the fulfillment of all the statutory obligations for environmental and worker safety. At least, this is what SRIA thinks. They confirm their open-mindedness to these benevolent steps, but not at the cost of their business.

But there is another side to this story, which reveals the actual truth. It is the conditions of the common people, who once flocked to the yard from the neighbouring districts for work. Leaving aside provisions for safe disposal of hazardous materials like asbestos and lead, the authorities never provided these workers with the basic safety gears like helmets, goggles, safety shoes and gloves. It stands to reason that handling heavy machinery and materials is a hazardous job, and ship-breakers should have automatically provided safety clothing to the workers. But the fact is that “safety gear” was practically unheard of during the years prior to the SCMC regulations. Even after their implementation, investments for safety gear have been minimal at the yards. The result of which has been the disabling of hundreds of workers, whose lives have virtually been ruined by the consequences. Dili Pradhan of Adapada village in Orissa’s Ganjam district suffered severe burn injuries and deep gashes on his body in a blast due to leakage from a small tank inside the ship he was dismantling. His employer bore the initial medical expenses, and then sent him back home to face a severe crisis of supporting his family with no income. Shyama Sethi of Khalingi worked for 13 years in different yards before he broke his right arm in 1995. he found no work back at home, and went back to Alang, only to return to after the death of Chitrasen, his young nephew. The 25 year-old guy was in good health and went to work in the yard just a day before his death. He developed sudden illness, started vomiting blood, and dies the next day. His ex-gratia payment was a meager 3000 rupees. Shatrughan Lenka of Khalingi is another victim of the ship-breaking business on the Gujarat coast. His right arm was badly fractured when a steel wire snapped inside a ship, disabling him for life. His compensations amounted to a paltry Rs.2,500, and he now sells vegetables for a livelihood. There are numerous other examples of such people, who have either been pushed to the limits of survival, or have actually been robbed off it by the negligence and callousness of the ship-breaking authorities.

It has to be emphasized that it is not the regulations that are killing the industry, but the unwillingness of the ship-breakers to part with their profits and purchase the necessary decontamination equipment. The current argument used by them against improvement is that it is not worth in the present slump of the industry. But fact remains that even when Alang was at peak production, the existing Red Cross hospital onsite was nothing more than a first aid centre with skeletal services. The ship-breakers’ claim that safety norms are adequate at Alang is contradicted by the saying “Alang se palang” (from Alang to deathbed), which is common among Alang’s workers. The saying pithily conveys the fact that anyone who works in Alang will sooner or later end up in hospital. Then, as now, all those injured have to make the one-hour journey to Bhavnagar’s Civil Hospital or to a private practitioner in Bhavnagar. Mostly victims of head injuries and polytrauma of the lower limbs caused by crushing of heavy weights, they have nil primary treatment at Alang. Not even an intravenous drip for bleeding fractures. Some of them die in transit out of shock due to fluid loss, and many are disabled permanently. With no scopes for reemployment at Alang, they are even refused their compensations, because many would come back and ask for their disability certificates.

Monitoring the safety of workers, however, is easier at Alang than monitoring the environment, which too is at stake due to continuous dumping of toxic and polluting materials like asbestos and thermocol. The steel plates, once removed from the ships, carry volatile organic matter of marine paints and similar other stuff like lead, arsenic, pesticides, etc. straight to the furnaces of the steel re-rolling mills, where no cleaning is done. The resultant air is highly toxic and corrosive. The monsoon rains bring down all the toxic materials as acid rain. It is very recently that the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) has started using landfills as a measure against the contamination. Awareness issues have surfaced regarding Clemenceau, the French warship, which was due for dismantling at Alang. It has been kept on hold for allegations of carrying dangerously heavy loads of asbestos, most of which was supposed to be cleaned up by the French, but have not been done so. On an overall view, Alang at present is in a standstill position, which is reclining towards a slow death everyday.

And who is suffering the most for it? Who else but the common masses who migrate here in search of work? A study estimates that one out of every 4 labourers in Alang is likely to contract cancer owing to workplace poisoning. But the labourers are blissfully unaware of the hazards. Lack of awareness about pollution coupled with the need to earn a living means continuation of work at the yards despite accidents and fatal illnesses. It indeed is a process of slow and painful death. But who are going to relieve these people? The NGOs do their duty by formulating the regulations. The administration sheds its responsibilities off by enforcing them; and the ship-breakers comply with the situation by closing shop. Nobody seems to be bothered with the ideas of providing a little better infrastructure to the industry, which might let it grow back to what it was once dreamt to be, and thus make it easier for the poor people to lead a stable and respectable life.

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