The Indian Express – Alang strike: Stand-off continues as police refuse to blink

(Written by Adam Halliday)

17 October 2012 - The ongoing confrontation between police and ship-breakers and the resultant strike at Asia’s largest ship-recycling yard Alang-Sosiya in Bhavnagar promises to be longer than expected; the district’s top police officer on Tuesday said there is no question of bowing to demands to water down “culpable homicide” charges under which three executives of a ship-breaking company have been booked after an explosion and fire on-board a tank-ship that killed six workers 10 days ago.

Meanwhile, the ongoing strike is set to snow-ball as ship-breakers announced they would be sitting on an indefinite dharna from Wednesday onward.

“We will start a dharna at 10.30 am at Rupam Chowk in Bhavnagar and we will continue with it every day until our demands are met,” said Nikhil Gupta, joint secretary of the Ship-Recycling Industries’ Association (SRIA), which has been spearheading the agitation since last Friday, a day after the three company executives were arrested.

The businessmen are demanding the police drop “culpable homicide” charges against these arrested colleagues and instead charge them under “death by negligence”, which carries a lesser penalty.

But Bhavnagar district Superintendent of Police Maninder Pawar told The Indian Express on Tuesday there is “no question of dropping this charge because the FIR was based on expert opinion from various government agencies involved in ship-breaking, whether it be the Industries Department, the Gujarat Maritime Board, Industrial Safety or Forensic Sciences divisions”.

“Whatever changes may need to be affected will have to be done as per the law and the courts can be approached for this later on,” Pawar added.

“It’s a stand-off between the police and the businessmen now. They are seeing which one of them blinks first,” a government official stationed at Alang-Sosiya said.

Meanwhile, the SRIA has raised a fresh demand for an independent inquiry into what it alleges to be a nexus between cops and thieves who have been stealing materials from the yard, a charge the police dismiss as an attempt to divert attention from the recent tragedy.

A joint committee with members from various industry associations in the district, to be headed by heads of the Bhavnagar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has been formed to plan for a long-term agitation, Gupta added. “Other industries have also supported us because they know that today it will be us and tomorrow it could be them,” he said.

Officials at Alang-Sosiya confirmed the yard remained quiet on Tuesday for the fourth day, with thousands of transport vehicles and thousands of workers remaining idle, steel rolling mills at a standstill and furnaces cold. The only activity at the yard is the beaching of dead ships and the act of tying them down, they said, with an average two or three vessels beaching each day.

To prevent an exodus, SRIA members have, however, been paying workers their regular salary, but the 15,000-odd tonnes of steel and other scrap metal daily produced from the yard has dropped to almost nil.