January 05, 2006

A beach, a mirror

Second instalment of my memories from Alang. (First instalment: On the beach).

A 1998 Greenpeace report ("Steel and Toxic Wastes for Asia") says that workers in Alang are:
    exposed daily to free asbestos fibres and vapours and dusts which contain heavy metals, arsenic, TBT [tributyl tin], PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and possibly also dioxin. ... [Asbestos] is stripped from the ships in everyday clothing, without protective masks and with bare hands.

This is especially worth remembering as the French carrier Clemenceau heads for Alang, with its complement of asbestos and other chemicals.

With its investigations and reports like this one, Greenpeace has forced better health and safety standards on Alang contractors.

Yet here's something to get used to about Alang. Even though the Greenpeace report is concerned with worker safety and health, Pritam and the workers didn't speak of it with any fondness. Partly because of Greenpeace efforts, Alang is losing business steadily -- remember, just 35 occupied plots out of over 160. Jobs here are drying up and workers are returning to their states.

Returning to what Foreman Pritam and every other worker here believes is worse than tearing apart ships by hand.

And then there's the shopping alley. For several kilometres out of Alang, the road to Bhavnagar is lined with shops selling stuff off the ships. (And, as we found out, plenty of stuff not off the ships). Mirrors, showers and toilets, chairs, crockery, soaps, machinery, steel plates, wires, sinks, washing machines, knick-knacks, oxygen cylinders ... everything.

Everything of any value on the broken-apart ships is for sale in this vast open-air strip mall. (I picked up a packet of dish scourers that were utterly useless). With well over a thousand shops, it dwarfs any other mall you can think of. That's a measure of what the shipbreaking industry means to Alang.

Yes, the conditions in Alang leave me appalled. Yet there's a small army working hard here, earning their wages hard. Yes, measly wages -- what's two dollars a day? Yet that's more than the workers can hope for at home, and this industry is the bedrock of an entire region's economy.

Some very old Indian dilemmas here.

And so I think: here in the hard rain, surrounded by the tawdry debris of the world's unwanted ships, among swarms of industrious and wiry Indian men -- somewhere in this place is some finely strained essence of India.

"Alang is a wonder of the world", wrote William Langewiesche in a superb cover story for the Atlantic Monthly ("The Shipbreakers", August 2000, unavailable on the Atlantic website, but you can find it here). And it truly is: for the surreal feel of this beach town where broken ships languish on the beach; for the conditions here; for the questions it leaves you with. Spot on, Langewiesche.

But Alang is a wonder most of all as a mirror. For the way it makes you look at a country anew, yet familiar as a glove.

I want a final look at HMS something-or-the-other. The superstructure looms tall and mighty over us. Yet there's something toy-like about this once-warrior of the seas. Something majestic, yet frail. Powerful, yet brittle.

Beside my left foot, more gas-fired sparks begin to fly. The men are cutting metal again.


Kartik said...


Small point here-

If you look at responsibilities:

The French Govt (in the case of the Clemenceau) is getting done with the its work at hand.

Greenpeace's motive is to oppose environmentally harmful activity anywhere in the world, and they are accomplishing that.

The workers' motive is to earn a day's living, and they are achieving that.

Now think about it- if this activity is really harmful to all the people working at Alang and the coast surrounding it, and to heaven knows what else ... well, it is decidedly harmful.

So someone, some entity is failing miserably in its job- hmm, I wonder what part of public life it is that is entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of the citizenry.

Oh that's right, I was looking for the word government. I couldn't find it anywhere in this ongoing melee, sorry.

Once again, it burns me, but this time, I am confused in all directions, except one.

Anonymous said...

This was precisely the point I had raised when there were some articles on the Honda motor strike. The leftisits and their stooges in the media went hammer and tongs about this incident. Why do they not utter a word about places such as Alang. It is terrible to think that a small army of workers are working in that place and that is not considering the environmental damage.
I reiterate the only way to move our fellow citizens out of this misery and other hellholes such as the UP tanneries, carpet factories and Sivakasi is for the govt to be an enabler of industries such as Agro processing, light engineering and electronics that are not so hazardous and do not wreck the eco-system to such a large extent. Even service industries such as eco-tourism and heritage tourism have a potential to be job creators. This can be done by proper investment in infrastructure, supply chains etc
Even after our achievements after the green revolution, we have not yet modernized the agro supply chain. With such a great historical heritage our tourism infrastructure and handicraft export is even inferior to Bali.
All this requires political will and not bowing down to vested interests. At present the powers that be seem hell bent on undoing even the little we have achieved by trying to force reservations in the private sector etc.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Nikhil, you're welcome to your anger against the leftists of the world, but you might want to direct it more accurately than to say: Why do they not utter a word about places such as Alang.

With Alang, it is pretty much only your leftists who have raised questions about what is going on there, starting with Greenpeace.

And what this has to do with private sector reservations, I have no clue.

Anonymous said...

Ok. The anger was only against our Left parties - CPI and CPI(M). I absolutely did not have Greenpeace in mind when I wrote the above piece. Have the CPI/CPI-M ever spoken about Alang or done anything to improve conditions? The last I know Brinda Karat was ranting about an Ayurvedic medicine supplier.
My point was that the govt (whichever it is) simply refuses to be an enabler and helping businesses prosper. Instead there are steps taken that will retard the private sector and again force several people into these hellholes of Alang.

Sunil said...

Glad you're writing about Alang. There was a recent documentary on PBS, featuring Alang........soon after i'd read about it in a few magazines. The level of toxins and the haphazard way of disposal with scant regard for workers health is depressing (though not surprising). And it's the same in almost all hazardous industries in India. Here is where strong rules need to be applied and enforced, without exception.

Kartik said...

apropos what sunil wrote, i'd like to add that the rules are there, its only their application.

recently had a talk by social activist michael mazgaonkar who works in gujarat - he was telling us about the huge clout that a certain industrial group wields with the GOI and the absolute lack of accountability regd. dumping or disposal of toxins.

the fact being that even if you manage to get the right laws written and passed, they still need to be implemented. and when people from within do this (like this industrial conglomerate), why expect anything else from those without?

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