The Hindu – Grim fate for workers in Alang ship-breaking yard

(Written by Meena Menon)

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6 July 2014 - TISS study finds poor health and safety services at Alang

There is a grim but popular saying among workers at the ship breaking yard in Gujarat – Alang se Palang (from Alang to the death bed). That came true for five men killed in a gas explosion while they were at work on June 28, sparking off fresh concern on environmental and safety standards, which are notoriously poor in one of the world’s largest ship-breaking yards.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had commissioned a study in 2013 by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) on Alang and according to preliminary findings, conditions have hardly improved despite official claims to the contrary. The final report is due for submission by July 30. This study for NHRC is based on intensive field work at Alang Sosiya from April 21, 2013 to May 30, 2014.

The preliminary report, which looks at the challenges of implementing workers’ rights, finds poor enforcement of safety regulations, inadequate health facilities and an abysmal track record of punishments. There are just two health facilities there — an understaffed nine-bed hospital run by the Red Cross Society (which came up in 2003) and a small clinic run by a private doctor. There is no operation theatre or emergency facilities, and injured workers have to wait for hours for the government ambulance or the one provided by the ship breaking association to get to Bhavnagar, 50 km away.

From 1983 to 2013 there were 470 deaths in the ship breaking yard, according to official records on May 15. Mr. Geetanjoy Sahu, assistant professor and chairperson Centre of Science, Technology and Society, TISS, who headed the study, had to use the Right to Information act to get these facts. But the real number could be much higher since deaths are under reported. Since 1983, over 400 fires have broken out and since 2001, 141 fatal accidents and 301 non-fatal ones have taken place.

The Alang Sosiya Ship Breaking Yard which has been functioning since 1983, has dismantled nearly 6318 vessels till 2013 and produces three million metric tons of scrap metal annually. Mr. Sahu says ship breaking violates numerous national and international regulations related to pollution, hazardous wastes, and labour rights. He sought the number of prosecutions and the status of the cases for violations of the Factories act from 1983 to 2013: there were 576 cases but 338 of them have not reached any conclusion. Only 14 factories were closed for 204 days in this period.

There are a high number of vacancies in the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health. Of the sanctioned 349 posts in class one to four scale of employees, only 202 have been filled with 147 remaining vacant as of May. One Special Assistant Commissioner of Labour and a Labour Officer were recently appointed at Alang.

Inadequate health facilities have been tackled by the Supreme Court and the Inter Ministerial Committee on Ship breaking to no avail. It was only after Supreme Court directions in 1997 and 2003, that infrastructure was built to handle hazardous wastes. There is a lack of housing, sanitation, water and no education facilities for the workers’ children. In a presentation to a visiting NHRC team on May 25 and 26, the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) which is the nodal agency, said housing facility in the first phase will be made operational only in June 2015 for 1008 workers as a pilot project consisting of dormitory blocks.

Ship breaking activities result in significant environmental impacts. There are reports of cattle dying after eating the waste from dismantled ships and people suffer respiratory and skin problems when rubbish dumps are set on fire. Most of the nearby villages suffer from water scarcity and salinity. A numbers of wells are so polluted that they have been abandoned, according to the preliminary report.

The annual turnover of the industry stands at Rs 6,000 crore. There are 169 plots for ship breaking but only 132 plots are functional. Each plot employs 150–200 workers and towards the end of 2013 there were around 35,000 workers. At least one ship is dismantled a day and the workers are mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Odisha earning daily wages between Rs 235 to 255 a day. Around 92 per

cent of the workers earn between Rs. 5000 to Rs. 10,000 per month. Mr. Sahu found that the Factories Act and other labour laws are blatantly violated and there is no database on the number of migrant workers.

Many NGOs in India and abroad demanded safe working conditions and as a result the GMB in 2003 made training for all workers in the ship breaking yard compulsory. However, many workers feel that the training programme is too short to understand the complex issues involved in the ship breaking industry. A major lacuna, the preliminary report says, is the workers are not trained how to handle hazardous waste or deal with an emergency.

Since 1983 not a single member of the powerful Ship Recycling Industries Association India (SRIA) has been convicted for various accidents and Mr. Sahu suggests an independent and impartial monitoring committee to implement workers’ rights. The Supreme Court orders have to be implemented and action must be taken for non-compliance, he adds.