Monday, July 31, 2006
Before I get into bhashan mode, let me link to a brilliant article on Alang that an editor of mine advised me to read before I visited the place - The Shipbreakers by William Langewiesche written for the Atlantic Monthly.
Now, let me begin by describing the place, the only way to get to Alang is through Bhavnagar which is on the Gulk of Cambay and the beach actually faces eastwards thanks to India's interesting geography. An idea that the shipbreaking industry in India is in terminal decline is evident from the Jet Airways flight we took. The ATR plane was just about half full, and Indian Airlines has cancelled its flight to the city. The city itself doesn't look or feel very rich unlike many other Gujarati small cities, and almost every second office is seems to be associated with the shipping industry.
The beaches of Alang-Sisoya are another 50-odd km to the northeast of the city and I hired a cab with my photographer to take us there. Before that, I had met with some local big shots in Bhavnagar, who were in the breaking industry. We sneaked into the beach, passing tens of shops on the way that sell anything and everything that can be sold from a ship - bed linens, cutlery, lifejackets, blankets, ropes and even more. One person even told me I could get old pornography from the ships, which I really wasn't interested in. Really!
Alang-Sisoya must have been a very nice beach once, but with most beaches near or on the Gulf of Cambay, the beaches are subject to tremendous tides, and being relatievly flat this means that the beaches can easily accomodate even the heaviest vessels on them. These ships are literally banged onto shore. Some of the roacks on the beach seem to have been leached by the immense amounts of rusting steel.
Many of the 140-odd plots are empty on the Sisoya side, but once we cross to Alang there is a hum of activity, but as the taxi driver tells us, activity today is barely a quarter of what it was during the peak years in the late 90's. Plot owners blast Greenpeace calling them 'blackmailers' and show us the rudimentary steps they are prevent pollution, but the workers are the ones most angry. Despite the risks of trying to chop up a ship using pressurised oxygen and LPG, these guys earn almost Rs 600/day at the top, even the juniormost chaps get over Rs 150-200/day, which is serious money in this country.
Yet, you know that some oil and other chemicals leak into the sea and it can't be good for the environment and no matter what the breakers do hauling massive ships onto a beach can't ever be environmentally friendly. Yet, there is once area of improvement, thanks to huge amounts of pressure from the global media both environmental and safety standards at Alang have improved and is continually improving - the yard even has a permanent landfill where they dump hazardous chemicals and asbestos inside sealed concrete containers. Ships need to broken and ship owners will get the job done in places where they can make the most profit, that is the way global economics work, however, environmental agencies and NGO's will need to understand that ships will need to be broken and breaking them in the west is not feasible all the time. Instead of attacking Alang, maybe working with the breakers to ensure the greenest possible way to dismantle ships at an affordable cost might be the best way forward.
However, the steel recovered from the ships will be recycled and used in buildings as reinforcing bars for buildings or to make utensils. But, because of the rush of primary steel plants in India has made this an unviable business. Ships that are bought for Rs 18,000 a ton only yield Rs 16,000-17,000 a ton. Most ships therefore go to yards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and China where the global media is assiduously kept out of the yards. In these countries, particularly the south Asian countries there is a shortage of primary steel and therefore secondary steel gets more money. Now, if these people can pay more for the ships, because they cut more corners obviously ships will go there and damage the environment more than they would at Alang, as well as take more lives in the breaking process. This is not a job people in the west will do, tactics used by Greenpeace and other people in the west will not work here, because people have to eat, and that is a problem in India. Alang provides for a good life for 20,000 workers, that is a lot of people. And that is the problem, you can't deal with the environmental problem of Alang without dealing with this, something that militant environmentalists rarely understand because they don't think straight.
Shipbreaking is a dirty industry and it is a dirty job. But someone needs to do it and despite Alang being a dirty, messy place, there are no better places to destroy a ship.
Two quick mentions - Shivam pointed me to a post by Soumyadip on condoms which a very intensely researched article and very hilarious. Plus, the blog of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a body campaigning for separate statehood for Vidarbha has a list of all the farmers in Vidarbha who have committed suicide since June 2005.