Ship-breakers desert Alang yard
Ever since Alang breached its first vessel — MV Kota Tenjong — in 1983, it drew migrant labourers from Mumbai, Orissa, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. Alang beached 4,539 ships between 1983 and 2008 and handled tonnage to the tune of 3,19,89400 LDT (light displacement tonnage).
Between 1996 and 2004, whenever large supertankers, container ships or passenger carriers were beached at Alang, it used to resemble a honeycomb with hundreds of manual labourers buzzing around the ships; dismantling them, salvaging what they could and reducing the rest to scrap. During its prime in 1998-99, Alang handled a record 361 ships with 30,37,882 LDT.
“We had close to 40,000 labourers during those days when business was profitable. Now, we are left with hardly 5,000 of them,” says vice-president of the Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA) at Alang, Vippin Aggarwal. Close to 95% of the labourers at Alang have been migrants, he points out.
A steady source of income drew labourers to Bhavnagar during its heyday. This happened while they were oblivious of having entered a death trap, points out Dwarikanath Rath of Socialist Unity Centre of India. In 2003, he had visited Alang and noted that there were no trade unions to guard workers interest.
Registering any protest against the contractor meant risking one’s job. So, migrants were earning as long as they were working. “Even their deaths almost go unnoticed,” noted Mr Rath. His concern stemmed from the fact that hundreds of deaths at Alang hardly stirred proceedings at the Gujarat Legislative Assembly.
The Congress leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Shaktisinh Gohil, is an MLA from Bhavnagar. A lawyer by profession, Mr Gohil told ET that taking cognizance of frequent deaths at the Alang Ship Breaking yard due to lack of safety measures, the Gujarat High Court had directed the state government in 1997 to regulate ship-breaking. The ‘ship recycling yard regulation’ — popularly known as Alang regulation — was never implemented.
Gopal Krishna of Ban Asbestos Network of India, who is also Indian Platform on Shipbreaking coordinator, says: “The migrant labourers are treated as second class citizens and in the event of casualty, ship-breakers destroy their identity to avoid paying compensation. Although the Gujarat Maritime Board that oversees the running of Alang claims only 372 workers have died there since the ship-breaking industry was first developed, the International Federation of Human Rights, a member of the platform on ship-breaking, points to 50-60 deaths a year based on interviews with workers.”
The Supreme Court-appointed technical committee of experts said every sixth worker handling asbestos in the ship-breaking industry has shown signs of asbestosis from chest X-rays. Mr Krishna turns to the 200-page report of Technical Experts Committee on Hazardous Wastes relating to Ship-breaking which puts the figure of asbestosis affected workers in Alang at around 16% which could further lead to lung cancer.
Nonetheless, “handsome” wages ranging between Rs 100-300 per shift is what made Alang lucrative to the illiterate migrants from other states. “With one ship ‘lasting’ for four months, the workers are assured of their wages. While they keep migrating between 173 plots at Alang for work, long-lasting lull in business volumes drove them to quit Alang and shift to Gandhidham (Kandla port) and Surat (powerloom mills),” says Mr Aggarwal.
Almost all labourers present at Alang are second-generation of migrants and even hold ration cards, adds SRIA’s joint secretary Nitin Kanakiya who owns Triveni Ship Breakers. Mr Kanakiya said the wages have shot up from Rs 95 per shift to a minimum Rs 100 per shift due to shortage of labourers. Lack of regular income because and court litigation on ship-breaking have forced labourers to shift to greener pastures.
23 April, 2008, Shramana Ganguly Mehta, Economic Times