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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Aux chantiers d’Alang, on détruit des navires et des hommes

by Dominique Bari, special correspondent

In the shipyards of Alang, they destroy men as well as ships

Translated by Patrick Bolland

Translated Tuesday 28 February 2006, by Patrick Bolland

The Clemenceau: Our special reporter has visited the site which was supposed to be the destination of the French aircraft-carrier. The story of the Clemenceau (1) has become a political scandal in France, due largely to its contamination by asbestos, which finally blocked its final voyage to the ship demolition yards in Alang. But Alang is more than a ship cemetery - every last piece of sellable material is salvaged. A clear instance of the consequences of globalization on human and workers’ rights, and the complex issues raised in the South.

Bhavnagar, Alang (Gujerat State, India)

Some of them are still enormous monsters, others are no more than gigantic gutted shells. Alongside each deformed hulk, you see the carcasses of what once were ships of all kinds. The night descends on shipyards of Alang, the dust and heat of the day - the mercury rises to 30-degrees in early February, 45-degrees in the summer - settles at last. In those shipyards where the work is continuing into the night, the projectors are turned on.

Opened in 1983, Alang soon became the world’s largest ship cemetery. Thousands of ships. Cargo-boats, warships, transatlantic cruise-ships at the end of their lives, have become here just heaps of scrap-iron. This is the fate awaiting the Clemenceau if the Supreme Court of India allows is to come here.(2)

Alang : Another world

It’s another world. Entry is tightly controlled. There are 173 ship-breakers along the 10 km. of coastline on the west coast of the Gulf of Cambay. Strong tides, combined with the coast-line that drops gradually into the Indian Ocean, allow ships, under their own motors or by tugs, to beach. They are propulsed with as much speed as possible onto what has become desolate shoreline. They await the final humility of dissection on the beach.

The workers only have access to them at low tide. No need for the local government, the titular owner of the shipyards, to install docks or expensive equipment, nor for the State of Gujerat, responsible for managing the shipyards, to intervene, still less the large ship-demolition corporations, exploiting this natural environment just as they exploit the workers.

Alang is a huge panhandle, a world cut-off, that you reach by a narrow, busy, two-lane road. There are control-points filtering entry into the shipyards. Visitors and the media no longer have access, except by permission that is rarely granted. The campaign by ecologists has generated a lot of hostility. Last Thursday, the Siv Sinna, the extremist branch of the BJP Hindu Party - which lost its majority last year in the national elections but still retains control in Gujerat - organized protest demonstrations against the ongoing Greenpeace campaign. (3) The local Gujerati newspapers avidly relayed the government propaganda. The Siv Sinna, which controls the enormous municipality of Mumbai (ex-Bombay), where most of the Alang ship-demolition companies have their offices, has very close ties with Big Business.

On the demolition site, you feel the tension. Alang is divided into two distinct zones, separated by the road that enters it. On one side, the demolition yards, on the other, the makeshift huts, as if glued one to the next: the shanty-town in which the thousands of workers live. It’s pitch-black, except the occasional pirating of electricity here and there.

Mahesh Panda, an engineer who heads up the Centre of Social Justice, was the first to launch an enquiry into this place, back in 1995, and to present the first report on the working conditions and lives of the workers and the environmental impact of the demolition of ships still loaded with their toxic wastes before being beached.

“You’d find 20 or 30 workers living in the same shack, sleeping on bunks stacked one on top of the other. Sometimes, they had to work 20 hours a day,” Mahesh Panda tells us. He still remembers the men completely worn-out, falling overboard from the ships they were working on because they were so tired, according to witnesses. “They had skin infections resulting from their contact with toxic materials, they had respiratory diseases. The ships’ holds often contained poisonous gases and the sheet-metal workers went ahead and cut them up with their torches, running high risks of explosions. The ground was saturated with toxic products. Yet most of the workers were bare-foot and at risk of serious injury”.

From 1983 until 2004, the Gujerat Maritime Board (GMB) acknowledged 372 deaths in the shipyards as a result of accidents. (4) But sources close to the shipyards talk of 50 to 60 deaths a year in the initial dismantling of ships, which is the most dangerous work. This means many more injured, according to the same sources. And if the number has declined in recent years, this is largely due to the decrease in business, as ship-owners have moved on to cheaper, more lax demolishers (particularly in Bangladesh and Pakistan). Many return sick to their villages after breathing in the toxic fumes in the shipyards - many of the workers come from far away (see related article: “Alang: India under the pressure of globalization)

Hardly an Eldorado

Workers are paid per day worked, recruited in their villages by hiring agencies which act as intermediaries between the ship-breaking companies and the peasants. The recruiters fix the wages. They control the workers. For these wretched and illiterate peasants, these job opportunities are seen as an Eldorado, even if the promise quickly loses its appeal. In the context of India, they at least allow the men to feed their families. And if they accept the more dangerous, initial work demolishing the carcasses, they earn a bit more.

In Alang’s heyday, in the 1990s, the shipyards employed between 40 and 50,000 workers. Today, there are officially only about 4000, although human rights organizations put the figure closer to 10,000. “We’ve never known the precise number of workers, there’s never been an official figure”, according to lawyer, Bushan Oza, who works with the Janhit human rights organization. And this uncertainty is itself disturbing.

A constant turn-over of workers

Labour turnover is also a real handicap for trade unions attempting to organize the workers; they have never been able to gain a real foothold in Alang, which, according to several human rights organizations is a “no-rights zone”. “How can they challenge anything? If a worker lodges a complaint, he no longer has a job”, we were told.

“It’s up to the State to make sure the laws are respected. We are not engaged in a struggle to close down the shipyards, rather we want to see the laws and workers’ safety respected in this completely informal sector of the Indian recycling industry. We are demanding that hiring be done directly by the ship-breaking companies, with labour contracts that respect the safety of workers, the rights of workers to unionize, and take account the problems of pollution. We are asking for all toxic materials to be eliminated before the ships arrive in Alang - because we don’t have the means to do this”, in the words of Mahesh Panda.

More globally, Indian activists are asking why India has to import toxic waste products from industrialized nations, who obviously find this an easy option to dispose of embarrassing toxic materials. They finger the authorities in Delhi and the Western powers as responsible. In the current vitriolic debate, it is clearly the perversity of the globalized economy and the competition between nations in the South that are being challenged.

Mahesh Panda’s report was duly submitted to the Indian Supreme Court. Other interventions since 1998 have also led to an increase in the control over the ship-breaking industry. Stricter measures have led to higher levels of safety in the yards, such as the outlawing of the landing of ships still containing hydrocarbons or toxic materials. Twenty-seven shipyards have been closed for failing to follow these regulations. But, as for asbestos, the legislation is vague about the holds of the ships that contain this.

Nations that prefer not to look

But the protective laws that have been adopted have scared off some of the ship owners. The journalist R.K.Misra is losing no sleep over the decline of Alang: “Out of 172 sites, 65 are still working and the clients have fled to Pakistan, Bangladesh or China, where there is less control over the procedures, because there is no democracy nor, therefore, any campaigns to oppose all this abuse”, he says.

“In the last 3 or 4 years, efforts have been made to protect the workers from the dangers of the products”, according to the Salanki brothers, who own a small family metal-recuperation business in the shipyards. “A training school has been set up and workers are required to take courses before being employed in ship demolition.” On site, new signs are reminding all workers to wear helmets and protective masks, use safety belts, gloves and boots. These are all to be provided by the employers, that is, the ship-breaking companies. But what is the reality about distributing this protective equipment to protect workers form toxic materials? Ecologists, human rights organizations and trade unions remain skeptical. Breaking up ships is highly profitable, bringing in around 10-billion euros for the Indian economy.

[Translator’s notes]

(1) The 27,000 tonne aircraft carrier Clemenceau was the pride of the French navy until it was decommissioned in 1997. Some of the asbestos was removed in French shipyards - how much is left is in dispute. then sold in 2004 to A Spanish company. It set off in November 2005 under tow to Alang, via the Suez Canal. Egyptian authorities barred it passage, but, under intense diplomatic pressure, agreed. Pressure from Greenpeace and other NGOs, and since the voyage of this "death ship" contravened EU legislation on exporting toxic wastes to the Third World, the Clemenceau was towed back ignomimously to the French port of Toulon, where it now awaits complete asbestos-removal. Nobody seems to know how this can be done.

(2) Since this article was written, the Indian Supreme Court has barred the Clemenceau from coming to Alang.

(3) For more information in the Greenpeace campaign, see http://www.greenpeaceweb.org/shipbreak/india.asp.

(4) “Since April 1997, there have been three major fires and explosions in the ships. An oil tanker beached at plot number 48 exploded on April 22, 1997. Workers say that nearly 30 people died, though officials say the toll was 16. The impact was so strong that a 700-tonne steel plate was blown out of the ship’s body. Reason: the ship was not gas-free. When workers started cutting the ship’s body with the help of gas cutters, it caught fire, blowing off the gas cylinders and creating a massive explosion”, according to the Seattle-based Basle Action Network (BAN)- see www.ban.org.

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