(Written by John F. Burns)
9 August 1998 - ALANG, India — After more than a million miles of plying the world’s oceans, the Milagro, a 35,000-ton, Malta-registered bulk carrier, completed her final journey from the Persian Gulf on a recent afternoon and dropped anchor off this windswept point on India’s northwest coast.
After waiting for the high tide that comes with a full moon, the ship’s Greek captain, Marinos Galatoulas, raised anchor and nosed her inland, steering a zigzag course toward flapping red and yellow flags on the beach. Smoke pouring from her funnel, the vessel sailed the last few hundred yards full steam ahead until her rusted prow crested the shore and rose gently into the air.
Few maps show Alang, a soulless spot on the coastline of Gujarat state 185 miles northwest of Bombay. But in recent years, what had once been a poverty-stricken village has become the world’s biggest shipbreaking yard. In the 1990′s, Alang has served as the graveyard for almost half the ships scrapped by the world’s navies and merchant marines.
Alang’s drawing card has been its natural conditions — heavy tides and a gently sloping beach that allow a ship simply to be run up into the sand — as well as the availability of limitless amounts of cheap labor for the dangerous, backbreaking job of cutting and hammering the ships into scrap. Just as important, environmental and safety regulations that make shipbreaking prohibitively expensive in the United States and other major industrialized countries are rare here, and largely unenforced even when they exist.
Vessels like the Milagro, mammoth 500,000-ton Japanese supertankers and in 1995 even the American aircraft carrier Bennington, which saw service in the Vietnam War, have been scrapped by armies of mostly illiterate migrant workers, many of them earning as little as $2.50 a day. For the Indian shipbreaking companies, there has been no need for dry docks and piers, only grimy, oil-slick patches of beach known as ”plots,” sparse brick structures as offices and winches to haul scrap back from shore.
The desolate scene is made more so by the finality that accompanies the last moments of the doomed ships, which arrive at the rate of two or three a day when tides are high.
”You feel like a hangman,” said Andriopoulos Panagiotis, 59, a former supertanker captain assigned by the Milagro’s Greek owners to oversee the ship’s handover to Shreeram Steel and Rolling Ltd., operators of Plot 119, one of 183 shipbreaking yards lining more than six miles of beach. One of Mr. Panagiotis’s tasks was to complete financial arrangements with the shipbreaking yard, which paid the Milagro’s owners $1.2 million for the vessel.
The 347 ships scrapped here last year, many of them from Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Russia and the United States, helped generate at least $500 million in earnings for the yards, perhaps a third of it profit after accounting for the shipbreakers’ costs in buying the vessels and paying their labor. According to the Gujarat Maritime Board, the state agency that oversees Alang, the industry employs 40,000 migrant workers on the beaches, generates jobs for at least another 200,000 people in associated enterprises and provides 2.5 million tons of steel annually for Indian rolling mills.
But Alang’s success has been accompanied by growing controversy, mainly in the United States, where environmentalists and human-rights activists have questioned the propriety of allowing organizations decommissioning ships for scrap, including the United States Navy, to sell the vessels to foreign shipbreakers who observe few if any of the regulatory standards that have crippled shipbreaking in the United States.
In the last two years, Congressional hearings have resulted in tightened scrutiny of the sale of American ships to Alang, and in tougher environmental standards that have discouraged the sale of many American merchant ships. Stricter American oversight has also halted, at least for now, Alang’s purchase of American Navy ships, which have been sold for scrap in large numbers since the end of the cold war.
Congressional concern has reverberated in India, where authorities have scrambled to begin drawing up minimal standards of safety, health care and housing for Alang’s workers. According to officials at Alang, the combination of tighter American regulations and growing environmental and safety consciousness in India have prompted many shipowners to find alternative markets for their vessels at similar shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulation is said to be even less rigorous than at Alang.
Alang’s workers live in slum conditions, in wooden shacks across from the shipbreaking yards with neither electricity nor toilets. Most of the migrants come from three distant states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, among India’s poorest, and spend months or even years without making the long rail journeys home to their families.
But more than the living conditions, concerns have focused on job hazards. Until recent months, when yard owners began distributing helmets, goggles and gloves, workers toiled on the ships in cotton pants or loincloths, often bare-headed and barefoot. The workers’ equipment has always been rudimentary, mostly oxyacetylene cutting torches, sledgehammers and the rusting winches that pull the scrap steel and equipment onto the beach.
Until recently, emergency medical help and fire-fighting equipment were minimal. Even now, with new safety rules haphazardly enforced and two small beach-front clinics that are financed by the shipbreakers, at least two workers die every month, and dozens more are injured, mostly from exploding gases and falling steel, according to Capt. Vivek A. Pandey, overseer of the yards for the Gujarat Maritime Board. Captain Pandey said accident victims were eligible for compensation payments of up to $6,250, but anecdotal evidence among the workers suggested payments have often been far lower, when paid at all.
Across India, Gujarat state is best known as the birthplace of Mohandas K. Gandhi, leader of India’s freedom struggle and champion of the downtrodden. But it is also the font of a wily business culture. In the first decade after shipbreaking began in 1983, Alang became the center of a goldrush, making millionaires of men with little knowledge of shipping, shipbreaking or of industry.
”You could call this the Wild West of Indian industry,” said Subodh Kumar, secretary of the Gujarat Shipbreakers Association. Mr. Kumar, 53, said Alang’s shipbreakers rarely used their own capital, relying instead on borrowed money to buy the vessels, then rushing to dismantle the ships within 90 or 120 days to meet repayment deadlines.
Mr. Kumar said this meant that yard owners were under pressure to dismantle the ships hastily so the yards could sell the scrap, pay the banks and take their profits. A string of serious accidents culminated in April 1996 with a huge explosion as workers dismantling a Japanese supertanker inadvertently cut into a tank of explosive fumes, setting off a blast heard more than 10 miles away. An inquiry concluded that 16 workers were killed, but unofficial accounts suggested a far higher toll.
The mood among the workers is subdued, even sullen. In the yards, under the careful watch of supervisors, few of the workers were ready to talk about their lives. But during a lunch break, a small group who sheltered from the harsh sun under a thorn tree above the beach painted a gloomy picture.
The men said that the yards’ exclusion of unions left workers powerless, and that promised benefits, including compensation when they were injured, were frequently denied. ”We are all afraid of losing our jobs,” said Shyam Kewal Patel, 28, a migrant from Bihar. ”If anybody raises their voice against the shipbreaker companies, they find a way to silence him. Either they send him away, or they pay him a little more to keep him quiet.”
Mr. Patel led visitors to a shack at the foot of the hill. Inside the tumbledown structure of wooden planks and steel sheeting scavenged from the yards, he displayed his meager belongings, including a few tattered movie magazines, a pair of rubber boots and a rusting gas-powered stove. With another worker who shares the shack, Mr. Patel sleeps on slatted planking spattered with mud.
The men said they earned $75 a month for a six-day week, working from 8 A.M. to 7 P.M., about average for unskilled industrial workers in India. Of this, they said, they tried to send at least $17.50 a month home to their families in Bihar. At nights, they said, they went from the yard to the shack, to cook an evening meal before the light failed, and then went directly to sleep. ”It’s not a good way to live, but what’s our choice?” Mr. Patel said. ”Either we work here, or we go home to Bihar and starve.”
Among those who defend the shipbreaking companies, harsh working conditions are explained as an Indian reality, little different at Alang than at many other industrial sites across the country. ”It’s not that we don’t care about the workers, but some things are beyond our reach,” said Pratap Shah, proprietor and editor of the Saurashtra Samachar, the leading Gujarati-language newspaper in Bhavnagar, a city 30 miles north of Alang. ”We are being asked to maintain Western standards, and we simply cannot do it.”
His comment helped to underscore another point commonly made by Alang’s shipbreakers — that countries like the United States like to have it both ways, criticizing poor working conditions at Alang, in the safe knowledge that the conditions prevailing here are what allowed the West to export an unwanted industry in the first place.
Mr. Pandey, the official of the Gujarat Maritime Board, made the point by paging through a thick file of documents for a copy of regulations drawn up by two American agencies, the Maritime Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. The regulations were tightened in 1997 after conditions at Alang, and in similar yards in the region, stirred concern among investigators in Washington and prompted the Navy to suspend sales to Alang.
American worries have focused on toxic substances found in many aging ships, including asbestos and hazardous chemicals known as PCB’s that are rife in the ventilator ducts, transformers and hydraulic fluids of many ships built in the 1970′s and earlier. American regulations require these be removed from any ship sold for shipbreaking before it leaves American waters, and also specify steps to eliminate explosive gases from empty fuel and lubricant tanks. However, the rules contain major loopholes, in the form of exemptions where American ship exporters can show that removing toxic substances is technically difficult, dangerous or too expensive. ”So you see,” Captain Pandey said, ”even the Americans are not faultless.”
Recent American steps to tighten the ship-export regulations included a provision in an appropriations bill approved by the Senate in July that would ban shipbreaking sales to any country that does not enforce environmental laws comparable to those in the United States. Although Gujarat has tightened its environmental regulations, putting inspectors on all newly arrived ships to check that tanks are gas free before the vessels are beached, the Senate rule, if it became law, would most likely end the breaking of American ships here. That would distress the Indian shipbreakers.
”American ships are the best,” said Mr. Kumar, the shipbreakers’ spokesman. ”The materials are of the best quality, maintenance is super and their specifications are so darned honest that you know exactly how much steel you’re going to get from them. In fact, they’re so good, scrapping them makes you want to cry.”