January 04, 2006

On the beach

As you read this, the Clemenceau, a decommissioned French aircraft carrier, is plowing through the seas towards India. Not quite to wage war on us ... no, it will be torn apart here.

Where will that happen?

Well, I went there once, chasing another decommissioned aircraft carrier. Here are some memories.


Long beach, sloping gradually out to sea, so the low tide goes very far out. If you've been to some beaches before Alang, you would agree that this once must have been an attractive beach. A pleasant holiday spot: waves, sand, sun, even if there are no palm trees in sight.

But not now. Now, the beach is divided into 160 or more shipbreaking "plots". Each can take one ship, though today, we're told, only about 35 are occupied. Still, 35 enormous ships up on this beach make a spectacle like nothing you've seen before. Driven and pulled onto the beach, then an army of workers takes over.

They blowtorch, hammer, pull, pick and break the ships down. This beach on the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat is, after all, Asia's largest shipbreaking yard.

And on the beach, in front of the shells of these ships, lies the debris of this mind-numbing operation. Sheets of thick steel, electrical fittings, propellers, motors and turbines, asbestos, belts, bunk beds, light bulbs, wire mesh, mirrors, even a drum but no drumsticks. Snaking out to the ship are long, chunky, heavy chains, buried in places in the sand. Lying around in coils, or long strands underfoot, are thinner cables and the pipes that carry gas and oxygen to blowtorches; piles of gas and oxygen cylinders also lie about. Close to the ship, I can see how the chains and cables, used to help winch the ship nearer, have actually gouged through the metal of the ship's prow.

And the men. Dozens per plot; grimy clothes and gumboots, some wear goggles, all in yellow hardhats. Some are hammering, some are carrying, some are tinkering, some are picking apart. Some, like ants, appear and disappear high up on the ship, moving from level to level, every now and then lowering a steel cabinet or other heavy object to the sand. All over the plot, others use blowtorches to cut through sheet-metal.

If there was a panoramic view of this place, dotting the scene would be these spots of intense orange or blue flame, showering sparks about.

In one plot, blowtorching isn't enough. They have an old British aircraft carrier -- 14,000 tons, I'm told -- to break down, and the sheets of metal on such warships are not just welded together, but also riveted. The greater strength that war demands, of course. So to cut up these sheets, the rivets must be removed as well. This turns out to be a two-man operation. One squats and holds a hefty nail, really a pointed chisel, the point squarely on a riveted rivet. The other man stands above and wields a long hammer. Three or four lusty blows and the nail is through. On to the next rivet. And the next. HMS something-or-the-other has been here for three months, and the men here expect it will have vanished under their diligent hands in another six or so months.

The smell as the flames slice through metal is pungent, overpowering, not pleasant at all. Is it the metal itself, melting? Or is it the paint, burning? I don't know, but it sears my nostrils. How do these workers bear it at close quarters, hour after acrid hour?

And who are they? Dark faces in uniformly brown clothes stream past -- a siren has just announced the 10 am tea break -- as I think that over. A foreman pats each man down perfunctorily -- what would they steal from this charnel-house, I wonder -- and they flood across the road above the beach, disappearing into a collection of tea-and-biscuit shacks. Their foreman, Pritam, tells me they are all from Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa.

And what do they earn? Pritam says, between Rs 3000 and 5000 a month, foremen at the high end of that scale.

And why are they here? Because the alternative to what looks like awful work in hellish conditions for measly pay -- two dollars a day, think of it -- the alternative, in one of those eastern states, is worse.

Think too, of what might be worse.


I'll have a followup, with a little more about Alang, soon.


wise donkey said...

remember it with ref to the strike due to budget u mentioned in ur article earlier.

well perhaps Nitish Kumar's "Bihar Moving" ad campaign (BBC) will help them.

Yeah sure.

Puru said...

France is obvisously intereseted in getting its garbage cleared for cheap and also pile it up somewhere else (only in this case it also happens to be toxic asbestos etc.).
Our govt. should realize and not only setup stringent work-place safety measures, but make sure that as policy it sends the toxic waste to the originating country! ... hope that happens. Heard the Gujarat or the Central Pollution or a related body was going to meet on this, am not sure what the wise men have decided.

Kartik said...

The French are the absolute worst when it comes to environmental concerns like this-

And now leave alone the environment, because of our (hon'ble?) Governments' negligences, its more a question of our country, its (desperate) workerks and the coast. It burns me (sardonic laughter, that pun wasn't intended).