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.