Alang Ship-Breaking Yard Gargantuan Grief

Two decades ago, Alang was a small poverty-stricken seaside village, where most of its Muslim inhabitants were fishermen. Today it is the biggest ship-breaking yard in the world.

Stretching along the west coast of the Gulf of Cambay some 50kms southeast of Bhavnagar, this stretch of ten kilometers long beach has to be seen to be believed. There are four factors which make it the biggest graveyards of ships viz. the tide, the sandy-shallow shelf, supply of unlimited cheap labour and the blind eyes of the law enforcing agencies.

                The eccentric-tidal patterns with the huge variations are unique. The tide is high only twice a month, which is when the sea covers the yards and new ships are beached; then for two weeks at a time the tide recedes, leaving the ships out of the water and easy to work on. The beach is a sandy-shallow shelf with long-gentle slope.

                When the tide is in, ships can drive right into the shoreline. There is no need of a pier or expensive harbour. I was in Alang to witness first hand the beaching of one of the largest ships that had ever come to its final resting place, the MV Stotl Valour, the biggest super tanker ever built. Usually a new ship is positioned vertically off the empty plot, and then with practically all crew leave it, taking off in boats. Only the engineers and a couple of other persons remain on board. The captain is on land, directing the navigation. The ship is given full throttle and is driven at break neck speed straight at the beach. So finely tuned is the whole operation that mistakes are very rare.

                The deep-drafted passenger ships tend to get stuck farther out than empty tankers and cargo ships and often frustrate their breakers by involving a slow winching process and partial demolition to get them closer to dry land. All the ships that are beached are stripped of all the non steel material, everything detachable that can be sold is removed from the inside, all the engines are gutted and removed and then the ship’s body itself is dismantled, chunk by chunk. As the ships rise in the water, they are winched ever closer to shore at each successive high tide. When the ship is within a few yards of the beach, the cutters go to work from the bow aft, slicing the leviathan into huge chunks that can be lifted shore-side. But they leave the keel, the better to skid the ship to the waiting breakers.

                Five kilometers before one reaches Alang, the road is lined with large warehouses, stacked high with doors, lathes, engine parts, beds, entire kitchen ranges, life jackets, life boats, furniture, linen, wooden panels, sanitary fittings, cutlery and plenty of other salvaged jetsam. Also, driving into Alang the roadside is canyoned by the ovens, beds, lifeboats, crockery, linen, shaving cabinets, windows, doors, towel rails, shelves, fridges, tables, curtains, chairs, mirrors, lights, ropes, flags, signs, chains and anchors that were on those ships, all these pieces now for sale, all of them useful to someone. The most prized items are the ships’ bells, which are used in local Hindu temples.

                There was a warehouse which had thousand of books, maps, manuals and magazines that had been salvaged from the libraries that were on board the cruise ships. I picked up a hundred books at for a thousand rupees, with two hundred rupees thrown in for packing and forwarding.

                I had a contact, who had promised to take me onboard one of the beached ships and maybe spend a full day. I was aware that with Greenpeace and other environmental pressure groups highlighting the plight of the workers of Alang, cameras and journalists were a no-no. I had managed to take along both my still and video cameras. My contact had come down to Bhavnagar to receive me, and we took a taxi to Alang.

                The sight of a beached ship with half its front removed is both awesome and gruesome, because despite the lack of humanity in a fully intact ship, when it’s sitting there with its guts hanging out it’s hard not to pity the poor thing.

                I saw destroyers losing their final battle against the blow torch and hacksaw, I saw container ships sagging into the sand as the P&O signs were pulled down, I saw roll-on roll-off ferries rolling over and dying: even without an obvious face to each ship, it was slightly funereal. Trucks with acetylene tanks and workers head toward the yards while even larger trucks with precisely cut metal plates return from the yards, destined for smelting plants.

                Gaurang and Pradyun Das along with six other villagers from the Baramba/Narsinghur area of Orissa wore taut faces when I met them. They were a long way from home, from where they had begun the definitive journey of their lives to where they were now: Alang. “We know that next year when we return home not all of us might be on the train,” said Gaurang. All the Oriya workers that we met were reconciled to the idea of what they were in for. “Its not really a tough choice,” Pradyun said. “Either we earn Rs 200 a day here and live with the risks, or starve at home in our village,” he said.

                I noticed that many workers were from the same village or from the same family. A legislature team from Orissa had visited Gujarat to study the condition of Oriya Workers in 2003. No report was submitted. At least, I could not get one. I remembered Narendra Modi’s speech in Bhubaneswar, where he had praised the Oriya workers of Gujarat, and their contribution to the economy.

                An improvised shanty town, larger than any slum outside of Mumbai or Brasilia, lies just behind the beach, home to the 80,000 Bihari, Oriya and Bengali laborers who travel for days from eastern India to work here. There is no reliable data about Alang’s migrant population, but according to statistics of the Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA), there are two-lakh migrant workers employed in the Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yard, a conglomeration of 180 ship-breaking plots. I was told that many illegal Bangladeshis too were part of the workforce; they can easily get lost in the hordes.

                The men live in shacks, which have been built out of lumber salvaged from the ships. The shacks are packed on the dunes behind the beach, separated by muddy alleys. Four or eight or 12 men might live in one shack. There is no furniture, no light, no water.

I met Subrato Das from Medinapore in West Bengal. Eight years of inhaling hot paint fumes have left him with persistent coughing and frequent bouts of breathlessness. There is a hospital in Alang, but most workers travel the hour’s drive to the nearest big hospital at Bhavnagar. Quacks flourish in the shanty towns. Malaria is rife and a study estimated last year that one in twenty workers in Alang is HIV positive.

                Subash Mohanty from Bhadrak takes off his gumboots and wriggles two stumps at the end of his feet where his big toes should be. “I went to work even when I lost these. If you do not, you lose your job here,” he says.

                Workers in Alang begin stirring around 7 am. Some wash from a bucket on the muddy ground outside their huts. Others squat by puddles, dipping their toothbrushes in the yellow water and cleaning their teeth.

Ship breaking is done from 7 AM to 11 PM with two-half-hour breaks and an hour for lunch. Dinner is eaten only after they reach home past midnight. The workers labour fourteen hours a day, 6-1/2 days a week, Friday is a half day as many workers are Muslim and it is prayer time for them.

                The workers work in subhuman conditions. Safety equipment is non-existent, there are no overalls, hard hats and work boots. Many of the workers work with their bare hands. They suffer broken ankles, severed fingers, smashed skulls, malarial fevers, cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis. Some are burned and some are drowned. Nobody keeps track of how many die here from accidents and diseases.

                More than half-a-dozen workers die every month at the yard due to accidents or explosions. Workers use cutters and blowtorches to cut the steel and pipes containing gas or oil. Often, the yard owner does not disclose the dangerous content in the ship, and this result in explosions. Employers, who are typically hard-nosed businessmen, only look at the money that comes in.

                I had managed entry into one of the yards (with my camera equipment). Tangles of cranes silhouette the sky and oxy-acetylene torches flicker in the oppressive heat, as two hundred workers swarmed ant-like on the super structure. The fitful breeze was thick with a rich cocktail of hydrocarbons and the tang of ozone from the cutting torches. The cacophony of metal on metal was all prevalent.

                Two men, facing each other, pulling on the ends of a large hacksaw, like lumberjacks were cutting the propeller of a ship. I was told that they were at the job since 3 pm the day before. They expected to finish towards sundown the next day. Back and forth, in a patient trance, with an unvarying stroke, they pulled at the saw. Some of the workers were working on a massive winch, cranking the handles which helped in inching the big chunks from the water.

                If the ship could be described on human proportions, then it was a real post-mortem. The head was the huge masts and smokestacks, the stomach was the holding areas which had been disemboweled. The long pipes and cables could be easily described as the intestines and the engine room where the standby generators still throbbed was the heart.

                Once severed from the ship, the complex hunks of metal are systematically cut down into ever smaller and more uniform chunks with each successive lift up-beach. What began as a ship ends up as tidy piles of standard-sized scrap-plate which are loaded on a steady elephant parade of decrepit trucks, long trailers and tractor trolleys that depart each night for rolling mills in all corners of India. The man-sized oxy acetylene cylinders used in cutting the steel scrap rumbles through in and out at all hours. People have been killed when the steel cylinders have fallen from overloaded trucks and punched through the windscreens of following cars. During my brief trip, I saw half-a-dozen accidents in which the trucks had tangled with everything from oxcarts to tractors and autos. A well-run plot will produce 4,000 tonnes of scrap per month, going through a 52,000 tonnes container vessel in eight months or a tanker in just over a year.

                There are no cranes, no special equipment, no safety of any kind.

The workers carry the metal scraps through the water, often cutting themselves on metal that littered the beach. These ships are indeed floating toxics sites, from oil and asbestos to lead paint and PCBs. The sands are dark with bunker oil, and the working conditions would give any safety inspector vertigo. Asbestos and poisonous smoke fills in the air from the ship-cutting.

                I somehow managed to get a yard owners permission to visit one of the beached vessel on which work had not yet started. A large chunk of metal had been cut on the belly and a makeshift ladder put in place. I was given a pair of gum boots, the three workers who accompanied me waded bare footed. We squelched through the mud, passing the huge underbelly of a half-cut ship. The huge leviathan towered over me as I gingerly stepped aside the pieces of metal which lay strewn everywhere. We reached the ladder and I had serious doubts if I could climb the more then hundred rungs to reach the belly of the ship. One of the workers scurried up like a monkey and gave me the thumbs up. I was soon half way up, the flimsy aluminum ladder swayed under my 90 kilos. A helping hand soon pulled me abroad and I was in the dark cavernous hold of the ship. After sometime, I could make out the ladder and walkways and following the feeble lights of the torches I was soon on the deck.

                The ship had been a chemical carrier and most of the equipment was painted deep orange. It had been beached just a week earlier and still had almost all the things in place. The boarding party had discovered a freezer full of chicken and the next few days would be party time. I went up the superstructure to the Captains cabin and sat on the swivel chair. From this height, I could see the entire beach and more than a hundred ships. I spent a good two hours on board, and as the tide was fast approaching I had to make my way back.

                I had confronted very rude officials of the Gujarat Maritime Board Office, where I had gone earlier in the day for information. I was told that journalists were not allowed and cameras would be confiscated, if taken inside the yards. Only sketchy two-year-old statistics were given and I was made to fee very unwelcome. Now as I was making the way out of the area, I removed the data cards from my Cameras, substituting them with blank cards, as I was apprehensive that if caught I would have to part with them. I had taken nearly five-hundred photographs in the day.

                It was nearing evening and I drove on the road that runs to the far end of the plots. We went past the last of the yards. There were sand dunes with scrub growing up till the high-tide mark. The rocks jutting out of the sandy beach were coated with black slick. A few of the locals were fishing in the small pools left behind by the earlier tide. The whole beach was littered with pieces of styrofoam, broken bits of plastics, jellied oil, fisherman’s floats, rubber etc all the jetsam of modern industrial society. The ecological price of the Alang shipyards was all too visible.

                I asked the fishermen about their catch. Judoobhai Ahmed from the nearby fishing hamlet told me of the days when he could get a catch of a quintal of fish just in a couple of hours. Now, he has to go further into the sea and many a time returns with no catch at all. I did see a few dead croaker fishes, and noticed that there were no crabs, nor any birds on the beach.

                The hulks of the ships in the nearby yard were visible in the late evening haze, looming-like towering tombstones. On the horizon were the black silhouettes of dozens of rusting ships, looking battered and well used, waiting their turn to beach. If fault can be found in this place of lost ships, it lies with the societies that build and then cast-off the vessels so efficiently scrapped on this lonely beach. The breakers of Alang at least transform the commercially-extinct ships into materials that find new life, albeit at a big human cost, a cost that is easily affordable as life comes cheap in India.

By Anil Dhir from Alang

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