(Written by Amit Mukherjee)
21 May 2003 – ALANG: After the loss of 13 lives in three months, numerous injuries and the increasing fear of death, fingers are being pointed at the very people who are supposed to ensure safety of workers in Alang, the world’s biggest ship-breaking yard.
Serious doubts are being raised over the way noobjection certificates are doled out by regulating agencies like the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) and the Controller of Explosives (CoE).
On Monday, an explosion in a beached ocean liner, ‘Inville’, left six dead. Another explosion on February 22 had taken seven lives.
Though GMB authorities continue to blame ship-owners after every mishap, it is a system failure which is the root cause. While ship-owners are being pulled up for not adhering to the safety standards prescribed in the memorandum of understanding between them and the GMB, there is hardly any accountability on part of the various agencies that issue clearance certificates to ensure safety of workers.
In the case of ‘Inville’, authorities had issued safety clearances, certifying the ship was fit for breaking.
The controller of explosives had granted the ‘man-entry’, ‘gas free’ and ‘hot work’ approval certificates before dismantling commenced.
Despite CoE clearances, presence of hydrocarbons and gases in the interiors of ‘Inville’ was detected. “It is surprising how the certificates were granted. There were ample traces of gases, sulphur, furnace oil and other material,which can wreak havoc if exposed to heat,” said an official of the Forensic Science Laboratory.
GMB authorities explained, “We work under various limitations”.
Alang has 178 plots that dismantle more than 2.5 million tons of material round the year. But it has just two CoE inspectors issuing certificates for about 30 ships a month.
While GMB’s officer in-charge for Alang Capt YP Deulkar says a minimum of 12 hours was required to inspect a ship completely before issuing certificates, he admits that “probably there are a lot of areas which are ignored.”
And, with CoE having its office in Vadodara, functioning often becomes difficult. Sources reveal that certificates are even granted on mere verbal assurances and without physical inspection.
Ship-owners often do not wait for all clearances certificates, say sources.With the price of steel, the prime extract from ships, varying on a day-to-day basis, ship breakers often flout norms to sell off the scrap when prices go up.
Sometimes, even ship-breaking guidelines are ignored and interiors of the ship, which are normally broken down only at the end of the operation, are dismantled earlier as there is good market for these products. This endangers the lives of labourers as they work in suffocating and unventilated compartments, amidst hazardous gases.
The role of GMB in granting certifications is also being questioned. Even after a ship breaker obtains certificates from the CoE, it is the duty of the GMB to verify them before the final go-ahead is granted.
And, the GMB has just a chief fire officer and three safety supervisors who are expected to completely survey a ship. “There could be slip-ups which come to light only after mishaps” admits Capt Deulkar. Of the three safety supervisors, only one is a permanent employee, the others being on contract.