A dying industry in India's graveyard of ships
by Rupam Jain Nair, Reuters
5 July 2006 (Alang Shipyard, India) –
Kamal Mandal packs his greasy clothes, pausing to glance at a ship being ripped apart bit-by-bit by an army of workers on the Indian coast.
Seven years ago, Kamal and eight village friends left home in Bihar in the east in search of work when their crops failed.
They found work in Alang, India's biggest shipbreaking yard, on the coast of the western state of Gujarat.
For years, they toiled inside the great ships, sending money back to their families.
But life has changed for Kamal and the migrant labourers who came to Alang with dreams of a better future.
With few ships now, there is little work and even less money.
A fortnight ago, India's Supreme Court allowed the cruise liner Blue Lady into Indian waters so it could be scrapped, but only after a thorough inspection of its contents.
Environmentalists want the ship, which contains tonnes of asbestos, banned to protect the workers.
Blue Lady is anchored 73 nautical mills off Alang, awaiting clearance by health and environmental experts before it comes in.
Blue Lady could reverse Alang's bleak future.
A green light will provide a lot of much-needed work for the shipbreakers and ancillary businesses but, more importantly, deal a blow to environmentalists battling to have toxic and hazardous materials banned from the shipbreaking yards.
"Some years ago, I could take home money, gifts and even utensils that were found inside the passenger ships. This year, I only have a table fan given by my employer as a parting gift," says Kamal, as he packs to leave.
"I am going back to my house. I feel frustrated with no work and not being able to feed my family."
With world metal prices sliding, changes in India's tax structure and the campaign by environmentalists accusing the shipbreaking industry of polluting and not protecting its workers, Alang has been struggling to survive under pressure.
Last year, more than 6,000 workers left. Officials fear it will be worse this year. At its peak in the late 90s, about 45,000 men worked at Alang. Now there are just 12,000.
In addition to the 45,000, the 12 km (8 mile) stretch known as the graveyard for ships of the world also supported more than 5 million people connected to the industry.
Supertankers, car ferries, container ships and giant cruise liners were dismantled here.
"There was action all the time," says Alang port officer A.K. Rathod. "People could be heard bargaining, negotiating everywhere."
The Blue Lady is the latest controversy to dog Alang.
A recent Greenpeace report said thousands of shipbreakers in countries such as India, China and Pakistan had probably died in the past two decades from accidents or exposure to toxic waste.
And in February, France recalled its decommissioned aircraft carrier Clemenceau after an outcry over the asbestos it contained.
But the Gujarat Maritime Board, which leases out the yards in Alang, says they can handle toxic and hazardous waste.
Alang dismantled 700 ships between 1997-1999, more than 200 a year. Last year, It was just 100 and only 34 so far this year.
'We Look After Our Workers'
Many workers who have turned to other trades and businesses are considering shutting their shipbreaking operations.
"Environmentalists project us as greedy, inconsiderate businessmen. We care for our workers and their health," says S.K. Jain, a member of the Alang ship recycling association.
Jain says employers ensure workers are well protected and wear gloves, masks, helmets and proper shoes.
Labourers say they attend safety workshops and participate in mock drills on handling hazardous chemicals. Colourful posters with safety instructions for workers are seen across the town.
"Do we stop living as there is always a fear of dying? We are in a risky job where accidents are bound to happen," says Gautam Mohanto, a worker who lost his right hand in an accident.
Now 38, he works under the scorching midday sun, hammering machinery retrieved from the ships with his left hand.
"It is sad to see labourers leave Alang. But being unemployed for a while is better than being exposed to deadly gases here every minute," says Gopal Krishna, a spokesman for Greenpeace.
"The workers have no health insurance and no proper medical facilities. Most of them suffer from chronic respiratory ailments."
Doctor P.K. Munshi, who has been working on projects to revive Alang as an eco-friendly shipbreaking zone, says:
"Alang has to match international standards to survive."
Setting up a well-equipped hospital, modernising fire stations and disaster management techniques and providing health insurance to labourers are just few reforms to begin with, he says in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city and commercial centre.
Bored workers say the only exciting days in Alang now are those rare ones when a passenger ship comes in.
Traders gather to bid excitedly for furniture, electrical goods, wine and even dogs and birds found inside the cabins.
"The rest of the days pass by waiting for ships," complains Jaideep Prasad as he deals cards to colleagues near the oil-stained shore.
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