Frontline (The Hindu) – Profits over safety

(Written by Lyla Bavadam)

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10 February 2006 - Alang’s industrial downturn has been blamed on tight safety regulations, but it is government policies and the unwillingness of ship-breakers to invest in safety that are crippling the industry.

IT is 4 a.m. on a January morning in Alang. About two nautical miles from shore, a ship waits, lights blazing. The captain takes his instructions from Alang Control: he is told to switch off all lights except those used for navigation. He charts his course – full speed ahead and directly towards the shore. The green and red navigation lights come closer at an alarming speed until the ship stops suddenly, its bow embedded deep in the soft mud. The Captain’s voice, heavy with melancholy, reports over the wireless: “Beaching successful.”

While the mood on board the ship is understandably subdued at the vessel’s last journey, the mood on shore is joyful. The yard mukadamsurveys the vessel in the early morning darkness and gives his professional opinion on the potential of the scrap it may generate and the ease of the job. His words are listened to carefully; men of his level of experience and training are increasingly difficult to find since Alang no longer offers the job potential it used to. Indeed, the arrival of this ship has been the cause of some celebration; beachings are no longer as commonplace as they once were.

The industry has been slipping into the doldrums for over a year. Of the original 180 plots (as the private ship-breaking yards are referred to) only 26 are functional. Up to December 2005 there were only 73 ships in Alang and about 4,000 workers – a far cry from the yard’s record peak during 1997-98 when Alang employed over 40,000 workers and its 180 plots worked to their maximum capacity to handle the 347 ships that were waiting to be broken. Business was booming not just for the shipyard owners and their workers, but also for the numerous ancillary industries that were wholly dependent on ship-breaking. Oil re-processing units, steel re-rolling mills, iron scrap, oxygen plants, foundries and the many kilometres of shops at Alang that trade in items from the ships are all industries that sprang up around the business of ship-breaking. These too have been severely hit. Eighty per cent of the steel re-rolling mills have shut down because of the poor flow of basic material from the yards. And only 12 per cent of oxygen cylinder plants are still operational because of the drop in demand for metal cutting. The transport industry has also been severely hit. When ship-breaking was at its peak, a long-distance truck transporter could be sure of at least one trip in 10 days. This has now dropped to one trip every five weeks or so. The ship-breaking industry continues to thrive worldwide. What, therefore, is the reason for its decline at Asia’s largest ship-breaking yard?

It is a common public misconception, indeed a convenient excuse, 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 this. Joint secretary of the SRIA Nitin Kanakiya bluntly states that it is the policies of the State and Central governments that have been largely responsible for the sharp drop in India’s share in ship-recycling activities, mainly, unfavourable duty structures, additional tax burdens and tax concessions given to the steel industry in Kutch. One of the greatest concerns of the Alang ship-breakers is that they are losing out to shipyards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. Those yards, they say, not only are less particular about international regulations, but, more significantly, have the support of their governments as far as tax structures and concessions are concerned. He told Frontline: “In India the ship demolition industry was always on a par with melting scrap [differentiated from the ship demolition industry by the fact that the scrap industry would melt any metal] but for the last four years or so we have been burdened with a 5 per cent customs duty that is higher than that of melting scrap. This means that the resale value of metal obtained from recycling ships will be higher than that of metal from the scrap industry. Naturally, potential buyers would favour the recycled scrap metal.”

Similarly, there is what is referred to as the Kutch factor, a complete tax break from Central and State taxes for the steel industry in Kutch. The attempt is an obvious one to create industries and employment in the region, and steel units responded by setting up units there. The downside of this 15-year tax break has meant that Alang steel cannot compete with Kutch steel in the market. “High operative costs, inflexibility of the government to modify regulations and the uncertainty of the renewal of our yard leases by the Gujarat Maritime Board [GMB] have all added to our problem,” says Vippin Aggrawal, honorary secretary of the SRIA.

Despite acknowledging factors other than the environmental and safety regulations as responsible for the deterioration, the SRIA does not hide its antagonism towards “hypocrites and antagonists like Greenpeace and other NGOs[non-governmental organisations]” who enforce the “rigid norms of First World standards.” While accepting that the regulations are essential, Aggrawal believes that the ship-breakers are paying for their open-mindedness to change. “India is the only [Asian] country that lets Greenpeace have its say. Why not go to China or Bangladesh or Pakistan? They know that they will not be tolerated there for one moment. We fulfil all the statutory obligations for environmental and worker safety. I agree that some years ago it was not as good as it is now for the environment or for the workers but it has been a learning process even for us and we are open about this.”

The claim that all regulations are being followed is disputed by P.S. Nagarsheth, who has been in the business for 45 years and has been the president of the Iron Steel Scrap and Ship breakers Association of India for the past 15 years. Nagarsheth says, “The GMB is not interested in implementing the regulations. The overall appearance of the yard has to improve. Masks, helmets, safety shoes and goggles should be widely seen. We are in a peculiar situation and if we are wise we will maximise it. Because of this Clemenceau issue, the world is watching us now. We should use this chance to improve our image so that the whole world says `Let us sell ships only to India. They do things the right way.’” Differentiating between “acceptance of rules and application of them”, Nagarsheth says neither the ship-breakers nor the GMB is serious about the application of the regulations.

The ship-breakers’ often-used phrase – “it is a learning process” – is almost a cover for the wrongdoings of the past. Their plea remains that prior to the introduction of SCMC regulations, the dangers of handling waste from ships was not known at the time and therefore they should not be held responsible. Even if this argument (weak as it is) is accepted, it still does not explain why workers were never provided with basic safety gear 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. Prior to the SCMC regulations, safety gear was practically unheard of at the yards. Nagarsheth says that investment in safety gear is still minimal and all yards should be forced into buying enough for their workers. However, when asked about the special equipment required for handling hazardous material such as asbestos, he expressed an almost naïve confidence in the existing techniques of dealing with the material: “You just have to ensure that the asbestos is kept wet when cutting it. The main thing is that the powder should not fly about and that the workers should wear full protective clothing and masks.” This method of handling a highly toxic material was shared by all the ship-breakers. They asserted that there have been no ill effects on workers handling asbestos (article on page 16).

At present the asbestos, which is primarily in the form of insulation, is dealt with in the following way. It is taken to a contained area, sprayed with water and then manually scraped off the pipes. The powder and shavings are then put into a mortar pipe, sealed and deposited in a lined landfill. The so-called contained area is usually just separated from the rest of the environment by a low wall of plastic sheeting and is open to the sky. Compared to the earlier system where asbestos was scraped off the pipes and just dumped in open spaces, this new method is advanced and, as far as the ship-breakers are concerned, adequate. At present the disposal of hazardous waste is handled by a company called Gujarat Environment Protection and Infrastructure Ltd. The filled cement pipes are transported to Naroda, near Ahmedabad, and deposited in a landfill. The GMB has also started three landfills at Alangone, which have a capacity of 48,000 cubic metres.

The process of decontaminating asbestos is expensive – the very fact that France chose only to clean partially the Clemenceau is an indicator of this. And the row created over the arrival of the ship by Greenpeace has gained further momentum with the purchase of an asbestos decontamination unit that Shree Ram Vessel Scrap Pvt. Ltd. says is currently on board the Clemenceau.

It is this expense (costs were not obtainable) that led SCMC member Dr. Claude Alvares to comment to Frontline: “As a result of all these measures, the number of active ship-breaking plots has come down from 180 to less than 50. So the environment and worker conditions are slowly killing the industry… Bangladeshi and Chinese ship-breaking yards are the main beneficiaries.”

It has to be emphasised that it is not the regulations that are killing the industry, but the unwillingness of ship-breakers to spend from their profits and purchase the necessary decontamination equipment. The current argument used by ship-breakers against improvement is that it is not worth their while considering the slump in the industry. The 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’ belief 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-long journey to Bhavnagar’s Civil Hospital or to a private practitioner in Bhavnagar. A recent look at the Civil Hospital records showed that no patient had been admitted from Alang in the last six months. This, however, can be attributed to the slowing down of work in the yards than to any special provisions for worker safety.

Dr. Sanjay Parikh, an orthopaedic surgeon who owns a private hospital in Bhavnagar, recalls the cases that came to him when he started his practice in 1994. According to him, the majority of the cases were head injuries and polytrauma of the lower limbs, mostly caused through crushing by heavy weights. From 1994 to about 2002, when Alang was booming, Parikh saw about eight polytrauma patients a month and 40 to 50 small fracture outpatient department patients. He says fellow private practitioners in orthopaedics, as well as other branches, saw many Alang patients but no comprehensive record of this was immediately available. Indeed, one of the reasons why ship-breakers preferred to send patients to private doctors despite the extra costs (borne by themselves) was, as Parikh said, “to avoid the medico-legal hassles” though he reported the cases that came to him.

Parikh says that though cases usually reached him as soon as possible, the emergency care onsite is negligible. “They have nil primary treatment at Alang. Not even an intravenous drip for bleeding fractures. The majority of my patients would arrive in a state of shock because of a loss of fluids. Some died in transit. Just the use of an endotracheal tube for a head injury drastically increases his [a patient's] chances of survival. But they cannot even provide this.” In many of the polytrauma cases, patients were disabled permanently. With shortened limbs or severe knee problems, re-employment at Alang was not likely. “Compensation seems to have been a problem because many would come back and ask for a disability certificate,” said Parikh.

Monitoring the safety of workers is easier at Alang than monitoring the environment. Obvious infringements like dumping waste thermocol and asbestos can be monitored; an assessment of water pollution is more difficult because of the tidal nature of the Gulf of Khambat, which washes away residue. An analysis done by Dr. Prashant Bhatt, Professor of analytical chemistry at Bhavnagar University, shows that there is a heavy concentration of toxic metals in the inter-tidal zone near Alang. His study, conducted over a two-year period, concluded that even if the industry were shut down, deposits would be present for the next 20 years. Bhatt is among the few people who have suggested that dry-docking be initiated at Alang. “This will avoid cutting ships while still afloat and hence avoid water pollution.” Cutting is forbidden but continues because of the physical restrictions of bringing a large vessel closer to land in its original size. Bhatt has also conducted a study of the subsidiary industries around ship-breaking and found that while shipyards are subjected to monitoring, ancillary industries are not. “The actual pollution occurs at steel re-rolling mills. Once the steel plate is removed from the ship it goes to the mill where it is put straight into the furnace. No cleaning is done. All the volatile organic matter of marine paint and anti-fouling paints – that is lead, arsenic, pesticides – goes straight into the furnace. The resultant air is highly toxic.” So toxic is the air that Bhatt says that foundries in the area around steel re-rolling mills have been complaining of corrosion. “The main corrosion problem occurs in the monsoon when the rains bring down all the toxic materials as acid rain,” he says.

Some idea of the intentions of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) are seen from the fact that the department has only just set up an office at Bhavnagar. Earlier Alang was the responsibility of the Rajkot office, about 178 km away. The office is still understaffed, with four environment engineers and six laboratory scientists. Basic monitoring tools and a laboratory are yet to be sanctioned for the Bhavnagar office. Monitoring the landfills is also the GPCB’s responsibility. A system of record-keeping exists, but prior to the landfills there was no record of any of the hazardous waste at Alang. An official who declined to be identified said, “The idea of landfills has been around since 1996 but the will to use them and implement safety procedures is very recent.” The magnitude of the GPCB’s task is understood when it is seen that a GPCB official needs to be present on every ship prior to its being allowed to be beached. An average inspection takes about six hours. In the present condition with few ships at Alang an inspection can be carried out with some degree of thoroughness, but the integrity of this is likely to be compromised if the number of ships increases. While there seems to be a general but guarded consensus that the situation in Alang is improving, the proof of it will only be seen once the yards are fully functional. Then, in the toss-up between maximising profit and minimising worker injury and environmental damage, the real concerns of the ship-breakers will be clear.