(Written by Rosie Goldsmith)
22 April 1999 – Just over a decade ago, no one knew where Alang was. But now this remote spot, on the coast of Gujarat, is firmly on the map. For on this once deserted stretch of beach is the world’s largest scrapyard, a thriving centre for one of India’s most lucrative businesses : shipbreaking.
At the end of their lives, half the world’s ocean-going ships come to Alang to die. The tankers, the liners and the ferries, which carried our the world’s freight are dismantled, bolt by bolt, and sold on for scrap. The ships I saw in the breaking yards were the size of blocks of flats, some ten floors high. About three hundred of them are scrapped here each year, about three million tonnes of India’s steel.
Even the smallest metal items are sorted and recycled
Everything on the ships can be recycled – the brass screws, the portholes, even the cow dung from the cattle carriers. Both sides of the approach road into Alang are lined with an amazing range of recovered scrap: doors, mirrors, chairs, panelling … One can buy anything from an unused lifeboat to a bottle of shampoo left behind on one German ship.
It’s reckoned that one in five people in the region is dependent on Alang. The yards have boosted the economy of Gujarat and of India, and the phoenix-like industry has given rise to a group of businessmen called the shipbreakers. One man I met, Subodh Kumar, was in the process of purchasing a Finnish bulk carrier. He was paying £6.6 million for it but would be able to make double or even quadruple that after it was broken up for scrap and sold on.
Alang is perfect for shipbreaking because the high tides carry the vessels up the beach and wedge them into the sand. There’s no need for dry docks or jetties.
The industry has low running costs – it uses almost no electricity or machines – and labour is cheap. About thirty to forty thousand workers – no one is exactly sure of the numbers because no records are kept – work on one of the two hundred or so breaking yards along the beach.
Economic gains, human costs
The labourers are migrants who have come to Gujarat from the poorest states in India – from Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh – lured here by stories of a new gold rush. Shockingly, they dismantle the ships by hand, with hammers and chisels and blowtorches. The men work under a scorching sun amid acrid fumes of burning steel and paint. It is one of the most dangerous industries in the world.
These dangers were what I’d come to Alang to investigate. Shipbreaking is an industrial success for India, supplying jobs to thousands and making millions of pounds. But it’s also an environmental and human scandal. Alang is today under attack from critics who accuse the industry of harming the environment and exploiting the workers.
At the end of their day’s shift, I visited the workers in their homes. They live in appalling conditions, huddled together in miles of windowless slums made from discarded ships’ timbers. There is no running water, no electricity; there are no toilets or showers. “We live like dogs”, they told me. They described terrible accidents at the sites and little protection: men killed by falling steel plates or burned when oil residues combusted. Two days after my arrival, three men died after being hit by a falling crane.
The numbers of deaths and injuries varied according to whether I spoke to the workers or the shipbreakers. But there ARE deaths and injuries, and this was confirmed when I visited Alang’s new Red Cross hospital.
It’s a tiny place to cater for so many people; the serious medical cases still have to be transported to the nearest city, Bhavnagar. But it has the facilities to patch up about one hundred workers a day and there I saw some bad cases of burns and injured limbs. One of the doctors there, Dr. Jani, told me of Alang’s terrible levels of malaria, cholera and leprosy. He worries that cancers might appear soon as a result of the pollution on the sites.
A toxic cargo
This spring Greenpeace delivered the first major study on pollution in Alang. It found dangerously high levels of pollutants which, as the ships are broken up, enter the air, the ground and the sea. It said that every single ship arriving here is a potential death trap.
Nityanand Jayaram, Greenpeace’s toxic wastes expert, had managed to gain access to the shipyards to publish the study. He accuses the West of creating yet another case of “third world dumping”, and dismisses the efforts of Mr. Kumar and his colleagues to help the workers as “cosmetic”. The import of most of these contaminants are banned under international – and Indian – law; yet the laws are routinely ignored.
Jayaram argues that international standards on pollution and workers’ rights have to be recognised everywhere – no matter how rich or poor individual countries might be. And although the shipbreaking industry’s economic clout makes many reluctant to criticise it publicly, a handful of people – environmentalists, union leaders and lawyers – are now trying to improve conditions.
I visited the home of Pradeep Thakkar, a lawyer who has been fighting the system ever since Alang opened. He takes on compensation cases for workers injured or killed in shipbreaking. In all these years he can remember maybe only 20 cases being solved, and each took years to work its way through the system. There is currently a backlog of at least 300 cases in the labour courts.
“The shipbreakers are trying to avoid paying compensation for major injuries,” he told me. Things will only change if the government starts to enforce the laws. It has totally failed to act and corrupt officials have made the situation even worse”.
Following a very bad press from Indian and Western journalists, the shipbreakers and the local maritime authorities were reluctant to talk with me. Subodh Kumar told me that we misrepresented the story: his workers were earning well by Indian standards. Also, he said, the shipbreakers were providing jobs for the poorest of India’s poor and bringing valuable income to Gujarat. He admitted the industry was “a dirty business”, but rejected the idea that it the was a serious threat to the environment.
The state plans to eliminate squalid, overcrowding housing like this
Shipbreakers and the local government have recently been forced to act by other forces. The Gujarat High Court has ruled that the authorities must provide decent facilities and accommodation for the workers. One Sunday in Alang I attended the biggest jamboree the place had ever seen, attended by local politicians, the shipbreakers and more than 10,000 workers. All had come to witness the laying of the foundation stone by the Chief Minister for a new model town for Alang, with running water, temples, shops and parks for 15,000 men and their families.
Behind the festivities, there are doubts about how far the changes will go. Whether these promises are kept depends on how much money the government and shipbreakers are prepared to invest.
According to Mr. Kumar, expansion has happened too fast and competition from other shipbreaking countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh is now biting. “We are already doing something for the workers, ” Mr. Kumar told me, “providing hard hats and cutting their hours. Extra costs are the last thing we need if the industry is to survive.”
Alang represents a dilemma for India and the West. The worker exploitation and environmental contamination of the shipyards has to be weighed up against their economic importance. As the West debates the ethics and laws of this industry, can it or should it enforce its standards on developing nations such as India? After all, if shipbreaking hadn’t been deemed too hazardous and expensive for the West, the industry wouldn’t exist at all in India.