Pique – Why ship-breaking can be heartbreaking

(Written by Shah Zaman Baloch)

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1 June 2013 - Gadani ship breaking yard is the world’s third largest. It consists of 132 ship breaking plots owned by some 40 big business firms located across a 10km long beachfront at Gadani about 50 kilometers northwest of Karachi.

Ship breaking in some shape or form has been taking place on Gadani beach since before Pakistan’s independence.

Currently, Gadani has an annual capacity of breaking over a hundred ships of all shapes and sizes, including supertankers and large cargo-ships.

During the 1970s and 80s, ship breaking was at its peak as an industry in Pakistan, and for some time, Gadani was the largest breaking yard in the world with more than 30,000 direct employees. With competition from India and Bangladesh, it is now reduced to producing less than a fifth of the scrap it used to in the 80s. Some 10,000 labourers are said to work here now.

However, it is still the world’s leading ship breaking yard in terms of efficiency. At Gadani, a ship with 5,000 LDT is broken within 30 to 45 days, whereas in India and Bangladesh, it takes, on average, more than six months for breaking a vessel of the same size. A reduction in taxes on scrap metal has led to a modest resurgence of output in Gadani.

Today in Pakistan, ship breaking provides a huge amount of the steel — more than a million tons — that is required for various development and industries. Pakistan needs at least seven million tons of steel annually of which ship breaking meets 60-70% of the demand.

The steel is stripped from ships methodically after they arrive on shore; it is then sent off to be further processed.

Thousands of local labourers work in extremely unsafe conditions, often for just a small amount of money. Some 70 percent of these workers, including the bottom of the line helper, welder, crane operator and cleaner come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The labourers do not have a long life span because of this. They extract metals, steel pipes, valves, electricity cable, machinery and wood from derelict ships. One of the many cases of death of these ship breaking labourers was in October, 2012; several labourers were working in the ship breaking yard, when heavy iron rubble from a ship’s deck fell on them, killing three of them on the spot and injuring several others.

More than a dozen have died since in various mishaps.

Many Karachiites visit the Gadani beach for its splendid beauty, unaware of the truth behind the labour of love and what the poverty stricken labourers have to go through. Nevertheless, the beautiful Gadani Beach is worth visiting and to see the labours work there is also a heartfelt experience.