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Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza

Not Quite the Beach Boys

August 30, 2004

FinanceMinister P Chidambaram's new Budget brought about a two-day strike (July 13 and 14) in the smallish beach town of Alang in Gujarat. It was called by the Gujarat Ship Breakers Association. They had earlier demanded that the customs duty on ships coming into Alang be reduced from 15 percent to 10. Chidambaram ignored this, and instead reduced the duty on finished steel products from 15 percent to 10. This caused the strike.

Why? That latter reduction makes steel products from Alang lesscompetitive, which is a further blow to an already suffering business. Employment in Alang is down nearly 50 percent, from a peak two years ago of 60,000, and that trend promises to continue.

Bear with me, I'm taking this somewhere. Alang, you need to know, is Asia's largest shipbreaking yard. But we may not be able to say that much longer.

Alang's long beach slopes gently out to sea, so low tide goes very far out. You can't swim here, though. The beach is divided into 160-plus 'plots.' Each can take one ship. For two decades, ships have been coming here from around the world to die. These days, only about 35 plots are occupied at any one time. 'Only,' but think of 35 enormous ships on this beach. Enormous ships, driven onto the sand, then an army of workers takes over. They blowtorch, hammer, pull, pick and break the giants down.

And lying on the beach is the debris of a mind-numbing operation. Thick steel panels, motors, mirrors, bulbs, radios, asbestos, belts, huge propellers, assorted other junk. Long heavy chains lead out to the ship. Gas and oxygen cylinders abound, cables from them everywhere, and these are used for blowtorching.

And the men. Dozens per plot, in gumboots, goggles, grime and hardhats. Hammering, carrying, picking apart, searing apart with blowtorches -- whose spots of intense flame, sparks flying, are everywhere. Sometimes it needs more than blowtorching, because the sheets off the ship are also riveted together. So those rivets have to be hammered out first. Two men tackle this. One to hold a tapered chisel on a rivet, the other to swing a hammer over his head and onto that chisel. Twice, thrice, then the rivet springs free. Think of doing this for an entire ship.

And the shops, the shops. Lining the highway to Bhavnagar, for some miles out of Alang, are hundreds of shops -- if I got the numbers right, over 1,200 of them -- selling stuff off the ships. Every kind of stuff: mirrors, shower stalls, crockery, soap, turbines, sinks, washing machines, sofa sets... to go with Asia's biggest shipbreaking yard, this must be the world's largest garage sale. Most intriguing of all, this is now a magnet for people looking to set up home. Bridal couples, our driver tells us,
regularly visit for bargains on sofa sets and more. Sure enough, while we roam, a Qualis with MP plates drives up and disgorges an entire family, who streak off in different directions. Hours later, they have piled the Qualis with carpets and such-like, and are on their cramped way home to Hoshangabad.

Back at the beach, a siren sounds the 10 o'clock tea break, and a long line of dark faces makes its way past me. Up and down the beach, the men are streaming across the road and into little shacks behind for their tea.

These are the men who struck work in July. These are men whose jobs here in Alang are slowly vanishing.

In 1998, Greenpeace issued a report about Alang called Steel and Toxic Wastes for Asia. Reading it, I learn that workers here 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.' If that's not frightening enough, there's what happens with asbestos. The report has a picture of a man doing asbestos cleanup in Germany -- he wears a full body suit and breathing gear. In Alang on the other hand, Greenpeace found that asbestos 'is stripped from the ships in everyday clothing, without protective masks and with bare hands.'

That report and a more recent Greenpeace visit have forced better safety and health standards at the Alang shipyard. There's simple proof of this in the photographs that accompany William Langewiesche's fine story on Alang for The Atlantic Monthly ('The Shipbreakers,' August 2000, unavailable on the Atlantic web site, but you can find just the text here.
In the photos
from Alang, the workers wear hardhats; in the ones from Chittagong, they don't. If you think India has lax safety and environmental standards, it's an eye-opener to realise that, at least when it comes to breaking ships in Alang, India enforces some standards. Bangladesh does not.

That's good, those better safety standards in Alang. Right?

Yet here's the other thing to get used to about this place. Even though the report I mentioned is concerned with worker safety and health, the workers here don't speak of Greenpeace with any fondness. Because partly as a result of Greenpeace, Alang is losing business: remember 35 occupied plots out of over 160. (Bangladeshi workers without hardhats come cheaper than Indian ones with). That is, Greenpeace efforts to improve conditions for workers here have put their jobs at risk. Now, so has Chidambaram's Budget.

The business here, a foreman called Rajesh says to me, is dying. Workers are returning home. To what every worker here believes is worse than a job tearing apart ships in Alang.

They are all from Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and Orissa. No locals here. (Our driver tells me that Gujaratis have no interest in this kind of work). "You know how it is in Bihar," says another foreman, Pritam, who himself left Bihar in 1990 for Alang. "Nothing works there, and that man" -- Pritam rails at great length about Lalu Prasad Yadav, but will not refer to him by name -- "that man has ruined my state." He goes on:

"'Backwards' can get 20 kg of rice there just for breaking a few stoneson employment schemes. Why would anyone want to work in the fields? Somany of us leave. I'm a 'forward', but many backwards have left too.(And what's your caste?) There's nothing left for us in Bihar. At leastwe earn here, we can send some money home, we can give them aneducation, maybe even outside Bihar."

And what do the men earn, here in Alang? Between Rs 3,000 and 5,000 each month, with foremen like Pritam at the high end of that range.

Rising above the beach are the shantytowns in which the workers live, huts clearly visible behind the road and its shacks. If you're familiar with the way construction works in India, you'll recognise this. Gather labour from some distant and poor state, young men glad to earn a few rupees to ward off starvation. Put them in huts erected on the site and put them to work.
Simple, and it remains one of India's USPs, if you will, that there's a limitless number of people willing to work like this.

What you'd call de-construction, here in Alang, goes the same way. Which is why ships have been limping into Alang for these years. The alternative to this awful work in hellish conditions for measly pay -- think of it, the men earn about two dollars a day -- the alternative, had they stayed in their distant eastern states, is worse.

I expected to be appalled by the conditions in Alang. I was. Yet there's a near army working hard here, earning an honest living. Measly wages, you might think -- what's two dollars a day? -- but even so, it's much more than they could hope for at home.

That seems to me an essentially Indian dilemma. Here in Alang, surrounded by the rusting debris of innumerable unwanted ships, among swarms of wiry and hardworking Indian men -- here, you find fine-strained essence of India. Maybe even the soul of India.

Langewiesche said of Alang that it was 'a wonder of the world.' He's right. The surreal feel of this town where broken ships tilt crazily on the beach; the conditions you see here; the shops with their visiting bridal parties; the questions you're left with, certainly: for all this, Langewiesche is spot on. But this is a wondrous place most of all for the mirror it holds up. The ways it make you look at a country that's always familiar, yet always new.

I walk back from sipping tea with the workers. An enormous British aircraft carrier sits on the beach, reminiscent of Surpanakha because its nose is sliced off. Is there allegory there? I don't know. But next to my left foot, a fresh burst of gas-fired sparks arcs into the air.

You can send me your comments at ddd@rediff.co.in


Dilip D'Souza


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Number of User Comments: 7




Sub: issue specific article

I enjoy Dilip's articles and books when they are issue-specific, whether it is ship breaking or the Pardhi tribals. Unfortunately, he has the knee-jerk habit ...


Posted by arul





Sub: Dilip

Is something wrong with Dilip ? Most of the time he writes pathetically biased, pro-Congress , anti-national , anti-social articles, shedding crocodile tears. How did ...


Posted by rAJIV





Sub: Re: employees at alang...

It is really pitiful to see that people from Bihar, have to go to Alang to find employment, that too which exposes to the health ...


Posted by Sanjay A





Sub: ALANG

I read both write-ups. Its an eye-opener. In developing nations, health & safety aspects, are still not a priority, and an accident is regarded as ...


Posted by Hanif Mohammed





Sub: Alang tragedy

It is better for India that this ship breaking industry dies a natural death. It benefited and continues to benefit only a handful of rich ...


Posted by Rajan




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