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The Shipbreakers

Photograph by Claudio Cambon

At Alang, in India, on a six-mile stretch of oily, smoky beach, 40,000 men tear apart half of the world's discarded ships, each one a sump of toxic waste. Environmentalists in the West are outraged. The shipbreakers, of course, want to be left alone -- and maybe they should be

by William Langewiesche

(The online version of this article appears in four parts. Click here to go to     part two,     part three,      or     part four.)

SHIP Captain Vivek A. Pandey thought he could have been a fighter pilot. Because his father had flown for the British before Indian independence, Pandey felt he had flying in his blood. When he was a young man, he took the Indian Pilot's Aptitude Test and astonished the examiners with his spatial orientation, his instinct for flight instruments, and the sureness of his reactions. They saw what he already knew -- that he was born with the cool. So when he then went to sea, he was not running away but making a choice. He explained it to me with a rhyme, "from aviation to navigation," as if the two were nearly the same. For seventeen years afterward Pandey ploughed the oceans in cargo ships and tankers, under many flags. He became a captain and lived aboard his vessels in master's quarters, some of which seemed to him as luxurious as hotel suites. He visited Norfolk, Savannah, Long Beach, and all the big ports of Europe. He liked the tidiness and power of a ship's command, but eventually he got married and felt the pull of domesticity. And so, nine years ago, after the birth of a daughter, he settled in the state of Gujarat, on India's far-western shore.

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More writing on travel and foreign affairs in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

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Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Greenpeace International Homepage
Information on worldwide Greenpeace actions and initiatives.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA homepage includes emerging issues, consumer news, and regional profiles.

United States Maritime Administration
Homepage of the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, including mission statement, facts, and reference.

The Shipbreakers
The Pulitzer Prize winning article by Will Englund and Gary Cohn. From the Baltimore Sun.

Also by William Langewiesche:

"Eden: A Gated Community" (June 1999)
The story of a single-minded businessman turned environmentalist who bought a thousand square miles of Chile, determined to establish a wilderness park. He thought Chile would be grateful. (This article was a finalist for the 2000 National Magazine Award for Profiles).

"The Lessons of ValuJet 592" (March 1998)
As a reconstruction of this terrible crash suggests, in complex systems some accidents may be "normal" -- and trying to prevent them all could even make operations more dangerous.(This article was a finalist for the 1999 National Magazine Award for Reporting).

"Slam and Jam" (October 1997)
For all the reports of equipment failures and "close calls" and controller burnout, the nation's air-traffic-control system is in fact far less precarious, in terms of safety, than people imagine it to be. The real threat to the system's integrity has as yet received little attention.

"Turabi's Law" (August 1994)
Islamic government may be the future for a number of Middle Eastern and North African states. The experience of Sudan -- the second radical Islamic state after Iran -- suggests that it will be no panacea.

"The Turn" (December 1993)
At the very heart of winged flight lies the banked turn, a procedure that by now seems so routine and familiar that airline passengers appreciate neither its elegance and mystery nor its dangerously delusive character.

"Vacations in the Sahara" (November 1993)
Where the intrepid may find majestic solitude -- and 8,000 years of human history.

"The World in It's Extreme" (November 1991)
A Sahara Journal: Travels through a parched Islamic land so vast, so wild, so desolate, so complex, that it defies comprehension or measurement.

I found him there last winter, in the black hours before dawn, on a beach called Alang -- a shoreline strewn with industrial debris on the oily Gulf of Cambay, part of the Arabian Sea. I'd been warned that Pandey would resent my presence and see me as a meddlesome Westerner. But he gave no sign of that now. He was a sturdy, middle-aged merchant captain wearing clean khakis, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Outwardly he was a calm, businesslike mariner with a job to do. He stood among a group of diffident, rougher-looking men, some in traditional lungis and turbans, and accepted offers to share their coconut meat and tea. He checked his watch. He looked out across the dark sea.

A high tide had raised the ocean's level by thirty feet, bringing the waterline a quarter mile inland and nearly to the top of the beach. In the blackness offshore two ships lay at anchor, visible only by their masthead lights. The first was a 515-foot general-cargo vessel named the Pioneer 1, which hailed from St. Vincent, in the Caribbean. Pandey raised a two-way radio to his lips and, calling himself "Alang Control," said, "Okay, Pioneer One, heave up your anchor, heave up your anchor."

The Pioneer's captain acknowledged the order in thickly accented English. "Roger. Heave up anchor."

To me Pandey said, "We'll start off." He radioed the ship to turn away from the coast and gather speed. "You make one-six-zero degrees, full ahead. What is your distance from the ship behind you?"

"Six cables, six cables."

"Okay, you make course one-six-zero, full ahead."

The masthead lights began to creep through the night. When the captain reported that the ship was steady on the outbound course, Pandey ordered hard starboard rudder. He said, "Let me know your course every ten degrees."

The answer came back shortly: "One-seven-zero, Pioneer One." The turn was under way.

"One-eight-zero, Pioneer One." I had to imagine, because I could not see, that great mass of steel trembling under power and swinging toward the shore in the hands of its crew. The captain called the changing courses with tension in his voice. I got the impression he had not done this before. But Pandey was nonchalant. He gazed at silhouettes of sheds that were at the top of the beach. He sipped his tea. The radio said, "One-nine-zero ... two-zero-zero ... two-one-zero."

Pandey began talking about the Pilot's Aptitude Test that he had taken years before. He said, "It's a test for which you can appear only once in your lifetime. Either you have the aptitude to be a pilot or you don't, so it is a one-time course in a lifetime. And very interesting ..."


On that test, using mechanical controls, Pandey had kept a dot within the confines of a 1.5-inch moving square. Now, using a hand-held radio, he was going to ram the Pioneer, a ship with a beam of seventy-five feet, into a plot on the beach merely ninety-eight feet wide. It was presumptuous of him, and he knew it. I admired his cool.

The lights of the ship grew closer. The radio said, "Two-three-zero."

Pandey said, "Okay, Captain, you are ballasting, no?"

"Yes, sir, we are ballasting. Ballasting is going on."

"Very good, please continue."

The numbers counted up. At "three-one-zero," with the Pioneer now close offshore, Pandey finally showed some emotion. Raising his voice, he said, "Okay, make three-two-zero, steady her. Okay, now you give maximum revolution, Captain! Give maximum revolution!"

I went down to the water's edge. The Pioneer came looming out of the darkness, thrashing the ocean's surface with its single screw, raising a large white bow wake as it rushed toward the beach. I could make out the figures of men peering forward from the bridge and the bow. Now the sound of the bow wave, like that of a waterfall, drowned the drumming of the engine. A group of workers who had been standing nearby scattered to safety. I stayed where I was. Pandey joined me. The Pioneer kept coming. It was caught by an inshore current that carried it briefly to the side. Then the keel hit the bottom, and the ship drove hard onto the flooded beach, carried by its weight, slowing under full forward power until the rudder no longer functioned and the hull veered out of control and slid to a halt not a hundred yards from where we stood. Anchors the size of cars rattled down the sides and splashed into the shallows. The engine stopped, the lights switched off in succession from bow to stern, and abruptly the Pioneer lay dark and still.

I know that a ship is an inanimate object, but I cannot deny that at that moment the Pioneer did die. It had been built in Japan in 1971, and had wandered the world under various owners and names -- Cosmos Altair, Zephyrus, Bangkok Navee, Normar Pioneer. And now, as I stood watching from the beach, it became a ferrous corpse -- in Indian law as well as in practice no longer a ship but just a mass of imported steel. The seamen who lingered aboard, probing the dead passageways with their flashlight beams, were waiting for the tide to go out, so that they could lower a rope ladder, climb down the side, and walk away on dry ground. The new owner would have his workers start cutting the corpse in the morning.

I asked Pandey if he found this sad, and he answered emphatically that he did not. He was a powerful state official in a nation of powerful officials: he was the port officer of Alang, a man who rode in a chauffeured car with a state emblem on the hood, and it was important to him to appear rational at all times. But the truth, I thought later, might even be that he enjoyed these ship killings. He told me that during his tenure he had personally directed every one -- altogether several thousand by now -- and he took me along to his next victim, a small cargo vessel also from the Caribbean, which he had already sent speeding toward its destruction. He was proud of his efficiency. He mentioned a personal record of seven ships in succession. He was Pandey the ace, a champion executioner.

Then dawn spread across his gargantuan landscape -- Alang, in daylight barely recognizable as a beach, a narrow, smoke-choked industrial zone six miles long, where nearly 200 ships stood side by side in progressive stages of dissection, yawning open to expose their cavernous holds, spilling their black innards onto the tidal flats, and submitting to the hands of 40,000 impoverished Indian workers. A narrow, roughly paved frontage road ran along the top of the beach, parallel to the ocean. It was still quiet at dawn, although a few battered trucks had arrived early, and were positioning themselves now for the day's first loads of steel scrap. On the ocean side the frontage road was lined by the metal fences that defined the upper boundaries of the 183 shipbreaking yards at Alang. The fences joined together into an irregular scrap-metal wall that ran intermittently for most of the beach, and above which the bows of ships rose in succession like giants emerging from the sea. Night watchmen were swinging the yard gates open now, revealing the individual plots, each demarcated by little flags or other markers stuck into the sand, and heavily cluttered with cut metal and nautical debris. The yards looked nearly the same, except for their little offices, usually just inside the gates. The most marginal yards could afford only flimsy shacks or open-sided shelters. The more successful yards had invested in more solid structures, some of concrete, with raised verandahs and overhead fans.

The workers lived just across the frontage road, in a narrow shantytown with no sanitation, and for the most part with no power. The shantytown did not have a name of its own. It stretched for several miles through the middle of Alang, and had a small central business section, with a few small grocery stalls and stand-up cafés. It was dusty, tough, and crowded. Unemployment there was high. The residents were almost exclusively men, migrants from the distant states of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. They toiled under shipyard supervisors, typically from their home states or villages, who dispensed the jobs, generally in return for a cut from the workers' already meager pay. The workers chose to work nonetheless, because the alternatives were worse. In the morning light now, they emerged from their shacks by the thousands and moved across the frontage road like an army of the poor. They trudged through the yards' open gates, donned hard hats, picked up crowbars and sledgehammers, and lit crude cutting torches. By eight o'clock, the official start of the workday, they had sparks showering from all the ships nearby, and new black smoke rising into the distance along the shore.

ALANG is a wonder of the world. It may be a necessity, too. When ships grow old and expensive to run, after about twenty-five years of use, their owners do not pay to dispose of them but, rather, the opposite -- they sell them on the international scrap market, where a typical vessel like the Pioneer may bring a million dollars for the weight of its steel. Selling old ships for scrap is considered to be a basic financial requirement by the shipping industry -- a business that has long suffered from small profits and cutthroat competition. No one denies that what happens afterward is a dangerous and polluting process.

Shipbreaking was performed with cranes and heavy equipment at salvage docks by the big shipyards of the United States and Europe until the 1970s, when labor costs and environmental regulations drove most of the business to the docksides of Korea and Taiwan. Eventually, however, even these entrepreneurial countries started losing interest in the business and gradually decided they had better uses for their shipyards. This meant that the world's shipbreaking business was again up for grabs. In the 1980s enterprising businessmen in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan seized the initiative with a simple, transforming idea: to break a ship they did not need expensive docks and tools; they could just wreck the thing -- drive the ship up onto a beach as they might a fishing boat, and tear it apart by hand. The scrap metal to be had from such an operation could be profitably sold, because of the growing need in South Asia for low-grade steel, primarily in the form of ribbed reinforcing rods (re-bars) to be used in the construction of concrete walls. These rods, which are generally of a poor quality, could be locally produced from the ships' hull plating by small-scale "re-rolling mills," of which there were soon perhaps a hundred in the vicinity of Alang alone. From start to finish the chain of transactions depended on the extent of the poverty in South Asia. There was a vast and fast-growing population of people living close to starvation, who would work hard for a dollar or two a day, keep the unions out, and accept injuries and deaths without complaint. Neither they nor the government authorities would dream of making an issue of labor or environmental conditions.

The South Asian industry took about a decade to mature. In 1983 Gujarat State proclaimed Alang its shipbreaking site, when it was still a pristine shore known only to a few fishermen, without even a dirt road leading to it. Twenty-two shipbreakers leased plots and disposed of five small ships that year. The following year they disposed of fifty-one. The boom began in the early 1990s, as the richer countries of East Asia continued to withdraw from the business.

Today roughly 90 percent of the world's annual crop of 700 condemned ships now end their lives on the beaches of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh -- and fully half of them die at Alang. With few exceptions, the breakers are not high-born or educated men. They are shrewd traders who have fought their way up, and in some cases have grown rich, but have never lost the poor man's feeling of vulnerability. They have good reason to feel insecure. Even with the most modest of labor costs, shipbreaking is a marginal business that uses borrowed money and generates slim profits. The risk of failure for even the most experienced breakers is real. Some go under every year. For their workers the risks are worse: falls, fires, explosions, and exposure to a variety of poisons from fuel oil, lubricants, paints, wiring, insulation, and cargo slop. Many workers are killed every year. Nonetheless, by local standards the industry has been a success. Even the lowliest laborers are proud of what they do at Alang. There is no ship too big to be torn apart this way. More important, the economic effects are substantial -- Alang and the industries that have sprung from it provide a livelihood, however meager, for perhaps as many as a million Indians. Imagine, therefore, their confusion and anger that among an even greater number of rich and powerful foreigners, primarily in Northern Europe, Alang has also become a rallying cry for reform -- a name now synonymous with Western complicity and Third World hell.

CAPTAIN Pandey by daylight was less in control than he had seemed at night. He appeared tired, even fragile. We stood on the beach among the immense steel carcasses. I brought up the subject of the international campaign, led by Greenpeace in Amsterdam, to reform the process of ship scrapping worldwide. Although global in theory, the campaign in practice is directed mostly against the biggest operation -- the beach here at Alang. I had been told that Pandey took the campaign as a personal attack -- and indeed, at the mention of Greenpeace he struggled visibly to maintain his composure. His face grew tight and angry. He spoke emphatically, as if to keep from raising his voice. Very clearly he said, "The purposeful propaganda against this yard should be countered. You come and look at the facts, and I'm proud of what I have done over here. So there is nothing to hide." He sounded secretive anyway. He implied that a cabal of shadowy forces was conspiring against Alang, and that the real purpose of the environmentalists' campaign was to take the shipbreaking business away from India. He said, "I can show them ten thousand other places outside India, point them out, which are in even worse condition than this. Why should they talk about my country alone?"

Pandey had given his squadron of uniformed guards strict orders to turn away any foreigners trying to enter the yards through the main gate. But determined foreigners kept slipping in anyway. They worked for environmental and human-rights groups and took photographs of black smoke and red fire, and of emaciated workers covered in oil -- strong images that, Pandey felt, did not represent a balanced view of Alang. The moral superiority implied by these missions was galling to many Indians, especially here on the sacred ground of Gujarat, the birth state of Mahatma Gandhi. Recently Greenpeace activists had painted slogans on the side of a condemned ship. Pandey must have taken a special pleasure in running that ship aground.

He was a complex man. He claimed to know that he couldn't have it both ways, that he couldn't invite the world's ships to Alang and at the same time expect to keep the world out. Yet he insisted on trying. After the sun rose, he took me to his office, because he wanted to stop me from wandering through the yards, and then he escorted me away from Alang entirely, because he wanted to make sure I was gone. I did not mention that I had already been at Alang for more than a week, or that I knew a side road to the site and intended to return.


(The online version of this article appears in four parts.
Click here to go to     part two,     part three,     or     part four.)

William Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic.
He is the author of Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996)
and Inside the Sky: A Meditation on Flight (1998).

Photographs by Claudio Cambon.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; The Shipbreakers - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 31-49.

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