Is it finally curtains for the world's largest shipbreaking yard? A recent US government move could well turn the coastal Gujarat town of Alang into a ghost town. Paradoxically, what is bad news for Alang, the Indian steel industry and thousands of labourers is good news for the shipbreakers!
Not too many people even in the shipping ministry noticed the US decision to offer vessels to shipbreakers free of charge with a $200 per tonne subsidy. This came after its Environment Protection Agency (epa) imposed a ban on shipping old vessels to scrapping yards in European or Asian nations lest they cause pollution. To start with, Washington will allow scrapping of six vessels and then raise the number and subsidy budgets every subsequent year. Shipbreakers will have to do their work in Broune Ville, Texas, using either domestic labour or those with work permits from neighbouring countries.
Pravin Nagarseth, Indian Shipbreakers Association (isa) president, says many of his compatriots are planning to close shop in Alang and set up facilities in Broune Ville, with cheap Mexican labour. Says he: "Here we acquire ships at $100 per tonne. It'll be free in the US which has more than 400 vessels to be scrapped. Add the subsidy offered and you can figure out how much one can earn from an average 5,000-tonner."
This, after their relentless abuse has filled the soil and water around Alang with dangerously high levels of toxic wastes and exposed its 40,000-strong migrant workforce (working for a pittance of $2-4 per day) to serious health hazards and prevented global shipping companies from routing their vessels to the Gujarat coast. Two reports by ecology watchdog Greenpeace proved the existence of high levels of asbestos, heavy metals—arsenic, chromium, cadmium, carcinogenic chemicals—tributyl tin and polyaromatic hydrocarbons in the area.
As a result, Alang, which once scrapped nearly 100 vessels a year and contributed about 15 to 20 per cent of India's annual steel output of 34 million tonnes, is now operating at 30 per cent capacity. isa officials reveal that 110 of the 180 scrapping units are currently without orders. Old ships are increasingly being sent to yards in Europe and China. Even a neighbouring yard run by Mitsubishi has been picking up orders at the cost of Alang where shipbreakers refused to upgrade scrapping facilities and continued their reliance on age-old, labour-oriented methods.
Low orders are impacting India's Rs 1,000 crore secondary steel market which depends heavily on supplies from Alang. The figures have dwindled to less than two million tonnes from a high of 11 million a decade ago.
Washington's decision to set up environment-friendly scrapping yards follows epa and Greenpeace reports which blasted the practice of the developed world (especially Greek, UK and German operators) of sending toxic vessels to developing countries like India for dismantling in unsound labour and environmental conditions. In a note to Alang shipbreakers, Greenpeace said that owners or operators must remove the hazardous material from the ship before sending it for scrapping and also present a complete inventory of all residual hazardous materials on board. Says Marcelo Furtado, Greenpeace International Toxic Trade campaigner: "We're not against scrapping. However, we want to ensure that the export of ships-for-scrap is not an excuse to dump hazardous wastes on Asian shores."
Senior officials of the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Maritime Board (gmb) refuse to accept the US decision as a crisis. "The scale is fairly small and cannot be sustained unless the US government increases the number of vessels for scrapping," says gmb ceo P.N. Roy Chowdhury. "If some shipbreakers are shifting base because of low orders, it's because of their own failure to adhere to environmental standards. They'll have a hard task ahead in the US where norms are extremely strict. Besides, Indian shipbreakers are not known for using sophisticated technology to scrap vessels."
The need of the hour, clearly, is to improve environmental standards at Alang so that orders continue to pour in. The deaths have dwindled in Alang which means safety norms have been tightened. Some more caution will only help the shipbreakers pick up orders, says a gmb official, adding: "If they had checked environment tensions, they could have reaped a rich harvest because Alang has many geographical advantages—as a port, Alang has the second highest tide difference in the world." But shipbreakers, it seems, have a different gameplan.
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