Frontline (The Hindu) – Broken lives

(Written by Prafulla Das)

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28 January 2006 - DILI PRADHAN of Adapada village in Orissa’s Ganjam district turned 50 a few months ago, but appears a dowdy 60-something. Living in an era in which some senior citizens of India are joining marathons, Pradhan can not even walk, let alone run. About a decade ago, an unemployed Pradhan had gone to earn a livelihood in Alang, where his two brothers were already working in the shp-breaking yards. But a few weeks after he joined thousands of other daily-wage labourers in 1996, his life took a turn for the worse.

Pradhan suffered severe burn injuries and deep gashes on his body in a blast after gas leaked from a small tank inside the ship he was dismantling. Pradhan bore the brunt of the blast. He spent four months in a hospital in Ahmedaba and returned home a completely changed person. His employer bore the initial medical expenses, but did not give any other compensation for becoming handicapped in the middle of his life. In fact, his employer wanted him to return to Orissa as soon as he recovered.

The homecoming was anything but sweet. He had to feed his wife, two sons and three daughters. As the family did not have any agricultural land, Pradhan sold his homestead land along with the small house to support his family. Once homeless, the family took shelter in a neighbour’s thatched hut until they were allotted a dwelling unit under the Indira Awas Yojana on the outskirts of the village three years ago. But the battle to feed six mouths in the house has proved to be a difficult one.

Pradhan’s is just another struggle for survival. The tiny hamlets of Adapada and Khalingi are replete with horror stories of disability and death among Alang labourers who dismantle ships coming from distant countries with their bare hands to earn a living. The men from Ganjam are generally engaged in torch-cutting ships, breaking different parts of the vessels and carrying the waste for loading in trucks. Almost every second man one meets has a story about his stint in the ship-breaking units.

Shyama Sethi (45) of Khalingi worked in different ship-breaking yards in Alang for 13 years until he broke his right arm in 1995. Unable to find work in Khalingi, he went back there for work. But after the death of his 25-year-old nephew, Chitrasen Sethi, in Alang on August 15 last year, he decided not go there ever again. “Chitrasen was in good health and had gone to work in a ship-breaking yard just a day before his death. He developed sudden illness, started vomiting blood and died the next day,” he said. Chitrasen’s employer paid him a measly sum of Rs.3,000 as ex-gratia payment.

Shatrughan Lenka of Khalingi is another victim of the ship-breaking business on the Gujarat coast. Eighteen years ago his right arm was badly fractured when a steel wire snapped inside a ship, disabling him for life. He was given a paltry sum of Rs. 2,500 for his treatment, but no compensation. He is now managing his family by selling vegetables.

Earning a livelihood in Alang cost Kuria Swain of Khalingi his right leg. His foot was fractured and he returned to his village with no compensation. As the fracture was not treated properly, doctors had to amputate the lower portion of his leg. He has sold his house and is now living with his family in a hut, paying a rent of Rs.200 a month. He is yet to get a disability certificate and the doctors who amputated his leg are reluctant to issue one. His family is yet to be given an Indira Awas house by the local administration.

Surendra Sethi, father of six-year-old Dinabandhu, died in Alang two years ago. His mother, Sashi Sethi, is now maintaining a family of four by working as a daily-wage labourer in the village.

“In 1982, I used to get Rs.25 a day and by last year the wage for eight hours of hard labour had increased to Rs.60,” said Shyama Sethi. An extra hour of work fetches an additional Rs.10. “In the past, it used to take seven to eight months to dismantle a ship and turn that into scrap to be loaded in trucks heading for rolling mills in Punjab and other States, but with improved machines being used for the job, now it is taking just about four months to break a ship.”

Predictably, many of the innocent people of Adapada and Khalingi are not aware that the old ships they were breaking in Alang were constructed using toxic substances.

A study estimates that the one out of every four labourers in Alang is likely to contract cancer owing to workplace poisons, but the labourers are of course blissfully unaware of the hazards. Lack of awareness about pollution coupled with the need to earn a living means that despite many accidents people continue to work in ship-breaking yards.

However, many youths in the locality who have returned home from work in Alang plan to go to other places in search of work. “Earlier, more than 100 ships came to Alang for dismantling every year. Now the majority of ship-breaking yards are not getting any ships at all. The number of ships coming for dismantling has fallen drastically during the past four years owing to various restrictions,” said Bhanja Jena of Adapada. The combination of an increase in migrant workers and a reduction in the number of ships arriving for dismantling has resulted in non-availability of work.

Ganjam is not the only district from which thousands of poor and landless Dalits and backward-class people are migrating to work in different towns of Gujarat. People from the adjoining districts of Nayagarh and Khurda too migrate to Gujarat for work to support their families back home; the availability of several direct trains to Ahmedabad has made it easier for them to travel there.

“There are lakhs of people from Orissa working in various industries in almost every town of Gujarat,” said Hina Sethi of Khalingi who returned from Alang after losing an eye in a ship-breaking unit. He was also not paid any compensation by his employer. With no agricultural land, he has to search for work every morning in neighbouring villages.

People from this region have been migrating to distant places for work for more than four decades, largely because of illiteracy, non-availability of work and lack of land to cultivate in the villages. A few upper-caste people own sizable portions of land in the interiors of Ganjam, making it doubly difficult for the poor. Agro-based industries and self-employment schemes could help check the large-scale migration. But in the absence of such social safety nets, thousands will continue to migrate to Alang even if it means losing life or limb.