In Gujarat, as in many other parts of India where industry is strong, it is common to find economic logic dominating everything else. And there.s certainly money in ship-breaking - close to Rs.10,000 crore a year at the Alang yard alone, near Bhavnagar. Perhaps that explains why there is so little public protest over this highly polluting facility that endangers lives.

Alang sprang into international focus when Greenpeace launched an aggressive global protest against France for sending Clemenceau, the 27,000-tonne warship laden with asbestos to Alang in January 2006. The ship had travelled halfway, but was directed back to France by President Jacques Chirac as he was on a visit to India to build business ties, and the attention on the ship became too embarrassing. But later, another toxic ship, Blue Lady was allowed to beach at Alang. And the madness persists.

Nearly half the salvaged ships in the world are from Alang. On an average around 350 to 400 ships are broken here every year. What was earlier a pristine beach is now seen among the most toxic and polluted stretches of coastline in India. And Alang is a metaphor for changing values in Indian business, which sees money as the only god. It is also a metaphor for how the developed world looks at the Third World, of how the rich look down at the concerns of the poor. Even if ship breaking stops at Alang today, it will take many decades for the environment to recover.

The last journey

Huge ships from all over the world that have been at sea for around three decades are usually condemned. They are seen to have lived their life and are not considered sea-worthy anymore. Ship breakers bid for such ships and buy them. They are then brought to a ship-breaking yard like Alang.

Time and again, government officials and ship breakers have argued that if it does not encourage this industry, India will definitely lose business to Pakistan, China or Bangladesh. The question, however, is whether the price paid to maintain this competitiveness is not too high.

 •  Junkyard Justice
 •  Setting a precedent

The yard here began with just 46 plots in February 1983, and has seen exponential growth over the years. It presently has 183 plots. When the ship breaking activity started at Alang, only five ships were broken easch year. This number reached 301 in the year 1994-95. The breaking yard itself employs some 40,000 workers with an equal number engaged in numerous ancillary activities.

One can find hundreds of huge aged and condemned ships beached in front of numerous yards along the Gulf of Khambhat. This view stretches along the smoky and oily Alang beach for as far as the eye can see. Some have been beached only recently. Others have been stripped to bits. Some seem as if a huge cutter has sliced them apart. There are over a hundred ship-breaking companies at work on large super-tankers, car ferries, container ships and even ocean liners.

During high tide, the condemned ship just drives into the beach and drops anchor there for the last time. Its journey is complete. The captain salutes the flag for the last time. Usually, he is so emotional that he cannot stop the tears clouding his eyes. Then, he turns his back to the flag as he moves to get off the ship. Not once does he look back. That is the tradition. He has said his final goodbye. The crew also gets off, equally emotional as they have lived on the ship for the best years of their life.

As they leave, they only carry their belongings. The rest is left behind to be removed by the ship breaker and resold in a second hand market at Alang. Every little article is removed carefully - crockery, kitchenware, upholstery, furniture, fridges, bathroom fittings, microwave machines, coffee makers, food processors, washing machines, small fridges, air-conditioning equipment, engines et al. These articles are then carefully segregated to be sold to shopkeepers, who are spread out neatly on both sides of an eight-kilometre stretch on the Alang-Trapaj highway, not too far from the ship-breaking yard.

These shops attract clients from near and far, keen on driving a bargain for some excellent stuff of international class. As a lot of the material in the ship is of good quality, there are plenty of takers. In fact, the informal hospitality sector is a regular customer, given the bargain it gets on high quality utensils and kitchenware. It also attracts factory owners from various parts of India wanting to buy heavy duty diesel generator sets, welding equipment, turbo chargers, oil purifiers and other stuff that they can easily use.

Human and environmental risks

Even as business thrives, the dangers to human health and well-being, as well as the environmental fallout from this industry are too grave to ignore. It takes about a month for a ship to be scrapped. Once the ship is successfully beached, it is pulled further ashore as far as possible. Workers then clamber on and into it using ladders. First they empty its tanks, pumping the fuel out to be resold. The sludge is usually dumped on the ground and burned. Only after the ship's fuel tanks are emptied does the state government give its nod for the scrapping to begin. Sometimes there are fires caused by leftover oil or gas.

Thousands of migrant labourers from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa work at Alang in sub-human conditions. Cutters with gas torches slice the hull of the ship to small pieces. Many do not have protective gear and wear only helmets. Working with gas torches to cut the steel, they sometimes even suffer burns or falls as there is no harness.

Many have died in accidents and mishaps involving heavy objects falling on them. Others have died of health problems that include cancer, TB, respiratory problems, burns and so on. William Langewiesche wrote in The Atlantic that no one bothered to count the number of dead labourers in Alang. They live in pathetic surroundings close to the ship-breaking yard trying to save as much as they to send money to their poverty stricken homes.

Just across the road from the long line of ships that have been beached, one can see the shabby living quarters of the workers; these do not even have proper sewage. Water is at a premium, and the labourers buy it from tankers that make daily rounds.

Picture: Ramesh Menon

Looking the other way

Until the seventies, ships were broken down in huge yards in the United States and Europe. They employed huge machines and cranes, and it was quite a sophisticated industry compared to what we now see at Alang. But with rising labour costs and strict environmental laws coming in, developed countries stopped doing this work, and so the business went to countries like Taiwan and Korea.

These countries too soon junked the dirty work, recognising the environmental damage it caused. So the business moved to countries with lax regulatory mechanisms like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China who were more focussed on making money out of the opportunity rather than looking at the long-term environmental costs.

As the labourers were largely unorganised and illiterate, this move also ensured that they would be ready to work in trying conditions without too much recourse. Ship-breakers say that if modern and safe disposal of waste and ideal working conditions are incorporated, the ship-breaking business would become financially unviable like it did in the West. Greenpeace has been campaigning for long for clean recycling of ships and building of clean ships without the use of hazardous materials.

Gujarat too should have taken the initiative to build a clean ship-breaking yard, enforce at least basic environmental laws, ensure basic facilities for the workers and build emergency facilities as fatalities are so high. But the state has been looking the other way.

Time and again, government officials and ship breakers have argued that if it does not encourage this industry, India will definitely lose business to Pakistan, China or Bangladesh. This ironically is true as these neighbouring countries are indeed seen to attract more ships than ever before as environmental laws there are more lax than India.

The question, however, is whether the price paid to maintain this competitiveness is not too high. Perhaps fearing exploration of such questions and the answers that may yield, ship breakers and the yard authorities in Alang do not permit photography. They do not want any negative publicity that might impact business. Journalists must obtain state government permission to visit the yards.

Hazardous and dangerous materials

However, despite such attempts to muzzle publicity, it is fairly commonly known that the interiors of these ships have toxic materials in plenty. Asbestos, a hazardous substance, is used, particularly in engine rooms, for its thermal insulation and fire-resistant properties. It is sandwiched between steel plates in the walls or doors. It is a major health hazard because when it breaks into fine fibres, it can hang on in the air suspended for long periods. When inhaled, these fibres can lead to fatal diseases like lung cancer, mesotheelioma and asbestosis. Most of the symptoms of these diseases do not show up for many years.

The removal of asbestos requires special training, the use of respirators and protective equipment, monitoring and decontamination facilities. Alang does not have these in the way they are required. Here, the asbestos is removed by workers without any breathing apparatus. Fibres from the material float around the residential areas of the workers across the road from the ship-breaking yard, which might affect them even more due to the extended exposure.

Waste containing Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) at a concentration level of 50 mg per kg or more are also hazardous. Since 1982, production of PCBs has been banned in developed countries, but they are used in solid form in gaskets, insulation material and electrical components. They are used in liquid form in transformers, capacitors and in oil for electric motors and hydraulic systems.

PCBs are persistent chemicals and they bio-accumulate. Exposure could occur through inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption and can lead to several adverse health effects, including cancer. The safe removal of PCBs requires special training and protective equipment. But in Alang currently, cables with insulation coating that contain PCBs are cut with a blowtorch, releasing PCBs into the confines of a hold in a ship. Once removed from the ship, the cable is burnt and the remains removed by bare hands to obtain the copper wire for recycling.

A vessel's pipe and tanks contain oil and sledge from the fuel and lubricating oils. Oils and fuel poison marine organisms and soil the environment, threatening natural resources. Oils and fuel are toxic for humans too, and can be inhaled or consumed through contaminated fish or water. They can also lead to fire and explosions. It is not unusual for waste oil to be burned as it cannot be sold. It is also feared that it can be dumped into the sea.

Metals of particular concern associated with the ship-breaking industry are toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium. These are biologically non-essential metal that can cause harm to human health or the ecological system. Other metals that the breaking industry deals with are iron, alloys, aluminium and zinc.

Then, you have the ballast water, which is water intentionally brought on board to adjust the trim and stability of the ship. This waste-water often contains pollutants. Sometime oil cargo tanks are used for ballast, making the ballast water particularly oily. This may also contain aquatic organisms brought from another part of world, which threaten the ecological balance in the seas where they are released, and viruses and bacteria, which can be transferred to humans.

A of lot of this waste is dumped into the sea at Alang. Beaches that are miles away from Alang have had garbage from ships floating to them. Clearly, the only way out is for the industry to create a matrix of good and healthy practices, treat labour with more dignity, rights and genuine caring, train them in safety precautions and ensure minimum damage to our environment. But all that appears to be a pipe dream for now. There's too much money in doing the wrong things, and too little regulation to rein it in.