CNN-IBN – Gujarat yatra: Health and pollution woes in Alang ignored by politicians

(Written by Anubha Bhonsle)

5 December 2012 - It’s Day 3 of CNN-IBN’s Gujarat yatra and CNN-IBN heads to Bhavnagar, where life revolves around a ship breaking yard. Alang, that employs almost 50,000 people, is a big money spinner both for the state and the central government, but is also a big polluter.

Alang, the graveyard of ships, is a place where ageing vessels are torn apart by labourers and the metal is then sold as scrap. The economic downturn meant that for many ship owners it made better sense to send an ageing ship to the scrapyard rather than maintain it but keep it idle.

Alang accounts for more than half of all the ships scrapped worldwide, up to 50,000 workers, mostly non-Gujaratis are directly employed here, living in shacks with no running water or toilets. The stretch of coast that enjoys a tidal range of around 13 metre makes it perfect to beach a condemned vessel directly onto the shoreline.

The vast breakers yard and the town beyond that has grown under very loose guidelines. Thousands of rounds of cable are burnt almost every day to extract copper wire, which is further sold. The area gets covered with thick smoke and ash. Residents complain, but say they can do little else.

The pollution along the coast, and in Bhavnagar, has never been taken up by the BJP and the Congress. The lone crusader is Kanubhai Kalsaria, a former BJP MLA, who took on the Modi government over the Nirma cement plant, for procuring land in the catchment area of a check dam. His next target is Alang itself.

On the edge of Alang, a huge flea market has sprung up, selling equipment and fittings taken from the ships. Locals say when an owner decides to scrap a vessel, they don’t get the time to make a full assessment of the value of such things. As a result, the flea market sells everything from lifeboats, refrigerators to washing machines, cutlery and utensils. Down the 40 km stretch to Bhavnagar, the Alang economy continues.

The big parts from the ship are brought here and then further broken down by armies of men. Even the smallest of parts are up for sale and most work with basic hand tools, little training and hardly any remuneration. Sadly concerns of exposing workers and the environment to toxic materials has found little play in the politics or the commerce of the state.