India ship scrap yard has that sinking feeling
by Kim Barker, Chicago Tribune (USA)
4 May 2006 (Alang, India) –
Ramesh Patel still sells treasures from old ships - boots, life preservers, an empty Chilean whiskey bottle, a rusted can of Russian cockroach spray.
But increasingly he's faking it, stacking his shelves with binoculars, tools and cameras bought in a town an hour away. Business is bad. He's passing off new goods as being from salvaged boats because many fewer vessels are docking at the nearby ship-breaking yard.
"It's very tough to do business now," said Patel, 55, who opened his shop two years ago. "The ships just aren't coming anymore."
Only a few years ago, Alang was the world's biggest ship-breaking yard, a place where aging cruise liners, fishing trawlers and toxic warships came to die and be torn apart, their parts and cargo sold for profit. Now, largely because of pressure from environmental groups, the town itself is dying.
The decision in February to turn away the Clemenceau, an asbestos-lined, decommissioned French aircraft carrier, has only brought more attention to the shipyard and caused a further drop in business, both for the companies that dismantle the ships and for ship profiteers like Patel, who sell what once was on board.
The Clemenceau controversy could even mean the end of the industry in India. The French president recalled the ship after mounting protests, especially in India, where environmental groups and major trade unions rallied against dismantling the hazardous ship and the courts indicated that it might not have smooth sailing in Indian waters.
The fate of the one-time boom town of Alang highlights what will happen increasingly in India as it moves from being a Third World country to being a major player in the international marketplace. Dangerous jobs from the old economy, from dismantling ships to taking apart old computers, will disappear, often because of competition from countries less worried about environmental issues.
India will stop being seen as a dumping place for the world's toxic waste, replaced by countries such as Bangladesh, experts say. And the new economy - call centers for overseas credit card companies, information-technology firms that juggle human resources and consulting - will continue to thrive.
But the transition will not be an easy one.
In Alang, for example, workers still travel from across India for the chance to earn as much as $4.50 a day, breaking apart ships for 12 hours at a stretch. It's a good wage in India. It's also the only choice for many workers.
"It's for our survival," said Gama Yadav, who makes about $2.75 a day as a "cutter," taking apart steel hulls with a blowtorch. "What can we do? Back home, there's no work. There's no question of me being happy or sad. It's a question of me being able to eat."
In Alang, the numbers tell the story of a dying industry. In the fiscal year ended in June 1999 - the height of the ship-breaking business - 361 vessels came to Alang to be dismantled by 40,000 workers.
In the year ended in June 2005, 196 ships arrived.
And in the past four months, since the Clemenceau controversy heated up, only 33 ships have docked in Alang. About 3,500 people now work at the yard.
Officials worry about the drop in business, blamed mainly on environmental groups, higher taxes and competition from countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. But they hope Alang will recover.
"At the moment, it's a bad period," said Capt. Kiritsinh Gohil, Alang's port officer, who believes the key to good business is improving safety and environmental standards. "But as long as ships are built, they'll have to be broken down."
Officials said they never had heard of a single case of cancer in Alang workers and that accidents happen in any field.
But a report issued in December says that many ship-breaking workers worldwide are hurt by accidents, explosions and contamination from hazardous materials. Several thousand workers die every year - not counting those who suffer from long-term contamination, according to the report by Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues. The federation called the ship-breaking system a "form of contemporary human sacrifice."
Gohil said new safety standards have sharply reduced injuries and deaths at Alang.
In the year ended in June 1999, 25 workers were killed in fires and accidents, Gohil said. In the year ended in June 2005, only three died, a drop that could also be attributed to the decrease in dismantled ships.
"Even if you're walking on the road, you can get hit by a car," Gohil said. He said workers now know how to use safety equipment, and those who dispose of toxic materials are properly trained.
The Alang shipyard is sensitive about publicity - signs outside ship-breaking plots proclaim "Visitors not allowed." The government allows foreign journalists inside only if accompanied by a guide, who refused to allow interviews of workers or photographs of their working or living conditions. Men swept the roads, but no one cleaned up the workers' shanties, which looked like a patchwork quilt of scrap metal and wood. Although Indians are charged $1.14 to enter the yards, foreigners are charged $25 - almost twice as much as it costs to visit the Taj Mahal, the jewel of India.
On a recent Saturday, Yadav helped take apart the Reef Zanzibar, a 1,767-ton ship that docked in Alang on March 7 with the remnants of its final cargo, cashews. Yadav and the other workers at the Diamond Industries plot No. 84 cut the ship apart like slicing a loaf of bread - a piece at a time. The workers then cut each piece of metal into flat sheets.
The yard smelled like a mix of oil, gas and chemicals, despite being on the edge of the ocean.
Workers were supposed to wear safety gear - helmets, goggles, boots and overalls. But in the stifling heat, many men wore sandals, and only a few wore goggles. Instead, they tied bandannas around their faces as they used blowtorches. Despite the risks, no one was very interested in finding a new job.
"We enjoy the work," Ghanshyam Chauhan said. "Only a person with the will to work hard can make it here. To cut steel, you have to be made of steel."
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