Labouring over a warhorse

Ship-breaking is a lucrative industry that thrives on squeezing labour

Ranjit Bhushan Delhi
The world's largest ship-breaking yard is in a bit of disarray. At its peak in the 1990s, the 10-kilometre long beach in Gujarat's Alang, was the final resting place for over some 300 ships, carriers and vessels which came from countries as diverse as Brazil, Norway and Greece. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 200 a year and there is every chance of it going down further. If the problems and controversy surrounding Alang in Bhavnagar's Gulf of Cambay were not bad enough, the latest outrage against breaking of the French warship Clemenceau carrying with it a huge amount of asbestos, has once again highlighted the environmental hazard and the appalling working conditions that the Alang ship-breaking yard has come to signify.
The 27,000 tonne French aircraft carrier, Clemenceau was decommissioned at Toulon in France in 1997. Since then, it has been lying there for all these years as no country in the world appeared keen to take it, even as scrap, given the huge amount of hazardous chemicals in the form of asbestos that it carries. In the last week of December 2005, a French court cleared the sending of the ship for breaking to Alang, after rejecting petitions by campaigners trying to block its transfer. Activists, particularly from Greenpeace, say that the breaking down of ship by impoverished workers, would lead to death and destruction, apart from violating the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, which clearly prohibits one country transporting hazardous material to another country.

"Dumping Clemenceau on India or any other Asian ship breaking yard not equipped to deal with this toxic behemoth would result in yet another casualty of war, this time the victims would be unprotected, vulnerable and poor workers," said Rampati Kumar of Greenpeace India. Points out Shailendra Yashwant, Campaign Director of Greenpeace India: "End-of-life ships should be treated like any other toxic material under the internationally-recognised Basel Convention which bans the dumping of such waste by OECD countries in non-OECD countries. Clemenceau has been rejected earlier by Turkey, Greece and India on the grounds that its export violates the Basel Ban amendment. We have reasons to believe that this latest effort to export, allegedly after asbestos removal, is nothing but an attempt to greenwash, as the ship still contains large quantities of asbestos. The French government has the moral responsibility to ensure that it respects the Basel recommendations in letter and spirit."

Exposure to asbestos over a period of time, experts say, can lead to conditions of cancer. One of its varieties, the blue asbestos is banned in India, but the ship-breaking industry thinks nothing of it, prompting former minister and environmental activist, Maneka Gandhi, to say that what India now requires is a full-fledged campaign against asbestos.

Since the furore broke out, a Monitoring Committee of the Supreme Court of India on Hazardous Wastes has declared that the Clemenceau should not enter India. According to activists, it is possible to decontaminate large ships of their asbestos and other toxic material but it is cost-intensive and deters ship-breaking companies. So they prefer a destination like Alang where labour laws are non-existent, there is virtually no protection to workers and whatever few regulations exist are so heavily weighed in favour of ship-owners, that it leads to, on an average, of a death of a worker every day.

When this correspondent went to Alang in October 2004, it was common to see workers pull apart these gigantic vessels, quite literally frame by frame. The breaking of the ship presents a truly mediaeval spectacle with no hint whatsoever of induction of any modern technology. Workers have to sit atop the ship and begin pulling it apart without any equipment, save some fragile helmets—which too have appeared after a decade-long agitation against violative labour practices—and every time a worker enters a ship, there is a good chance that he may never come out alive. On any given day, men can be seen cutting huge columns of steel with oxyacetylene torches, their eyes unprotected from the actinic glare and toxic fumes. Others labour over the transferring of a giant beam of steel that sways precariously from a crane. An army of troglodytes can be seen inside a semi-dismantled ship, working away with chisels and hammers on many decks.

Eyewitnesses said that there have been many instances where workers pulling apart ships have simply fallen from heights into the sea and disappeared without any trace or compensation. Under the harsh sun, sunburnt workers toil in conditions where explosions aboard tankers or fires in containers are common. Similarly, workers being asphyxiated in airtight containers are not unheard of.

The flight of labour—and the dismal economic conditions that cause it—from the poorer states is such that workers are willing to live in subhuman conditions just to be able to afford two meals a day. If they die while doing their jobs, their families back home will at least have the workers' savings to fall back on. In the past two decades, since Alang acquired its elevated status, about 15,000 workers have perished in fires and other accidents. Of the slow deaths due to gradual poisoning, and physical degeneration, there remains no count.  As compared to what the workers may earn in their own states of Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand, Rs 150 to 200 a day is considered a substantial sum. Every morning workers line up before a plot which is closed. The gates open up and workers, mostly underfed and shabbily dressed, queue up and enter the gates after presenting their papers to the 'mastaans' who keep a sharp eye on any goings on.

Greenpeace's 1998 report on Alang, Toxic Wastes for Asia, highlighted the occupational hazards of the ship-breakers. Workers are 'exposed to free asbestos fibres and vapours and dusts which contain heavy metals, arsenic, tributyl tin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and probably also dioxin'. There is a startling contrast with a similar yard in Germany, where a worker is shown in a full bodysuit and breathing gear. In Alang, the workers are suited in their everyday clothes; and
the asbestos clean-up is done without any protection.

There are 183 ship-breaking companies in Alang, all privately-owned. The plots where ships are broken are leased out from the Gujarat Maritime Board. Of the 183 plots, 30 have been taken over by the board after ship-breakers failed to pay their dues. The ship breakers buy the warships from the government or their private owners. The cost of a ship brought down to Alang ranges from Rs 2 crore to Rs 80 crore. The Clemenceau is rumoured to have cost Rs 40 crore. The cost of breaking a ship is about Rs 500 to Rs 600 per each metric tonnes. When the tide recedes, ships are stranded right on the beach. Ship-owners are reluctant to say what their profit margin is, but if the opulence of their offices and farm houses are anything to go by, there is a lot of money to make.

On the road from Bhavnagar to Alang, an entire new economy has sprung up, those feeding on the carcasses of the vessels. These run to two types, one is the shops that sell the stripped out materials from the ships, which include steel, machinery, electronics, furniture, crockery and an assortment of goods. Visitors from all over Gujarat and other places land up on the road to Alang to pick up the 'foreign' goodies. The other is the mushrooming of small-scale industries linked to the ship-breaking industry such as a factory which manufactures acetylene cylinders and which has much use in Alang.

There are two departments that look after the work in Alang: the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) and the Controller of Explosions (CoE). Both officially blame ship-owners for the mess in Alang, but stop from going any further. It is hardly a secret here that ships are certified for 'breaking' without taking into account the safety of the workers.
Nothing illustrates this better than the Clemenceau episode. Despite the observations of the supreme court and the ensuing outrage over asbestos dumping, the GMB takes a dim view of the protests. Says HK Dash, Chairman of the GMB: 'We have in place complete infrastructure for storage and disposal of hazardous wastes in ships that come to Alang for ship-breaking. There are strict regulations that govern the industry and permission to beach and break a ship is given only after all conditions have been met.'

Activists on the other hand say that Gujarat is particularly vulnerable when it comes to protecting workers in hazardous industries. Even chemicals banned elsewhere in the world are allowed to be produced here. As for the influence of the ship-builders association, their clout can be gauged from the fact that the Gujarat High Court had directed the state government in 1997 to draw up a legal framework to be enforced in Alang. The Ship Recycling Yard Regulation (SRYR) was put into place by enshrining it in the state government gazette of August 2000. That is as far as things went: powerful vested interests saw to it that the SRYR was not implemented, on the grounds that it was 'an infringement on free activity'.

See also 'Scuttled by greed' by Ranjit Bhushan, Hardnews November 2004

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