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

Dark Satanic Mills

NEW Delhi sprawls on dirty ground under ashen skies. It is an immense capital city, a noisy expression of the Indian democracy, not quite the anarchy that at first it appears to be but a conglomeration of countless private worlds. I found myself there last winter at late-night dinners and garden parties among the city's large middle class -- professionals who drove when they might have walked, and inhabited houses like little forts with guarded gates and shard-topped walls. They worried about crime -- partly, I think, because they could defend against it. The larger assaults on a life in New Delhi were simply overwhelming. A friend of mine with a small trucking company was concerned about the progressive failure of the city's infrastructure and what that meant for his business. He took me to visit New Delhi's chief urban planner, a powerful official who sat defeated at an empty steel desk in a big bare office, and out of boredom and loneliness detained us with small talk and offers of tea. After we escaped, my friend said, "It's incredible, no? I wanted you to see this. It's like he's sitting there at the end of the world."

Photograph by Claudio Cambon

But to me it was the pollution in New Delhi that seemed apocalyptic. The streams were dead channels trickling with sewage and bright chemicals, and the air on the streets was at times barely breathable. In the heat of the afternoons a yellow-white mixture hung above the city, raining acidic soot into the dust and exhaust fumes. At night the mixture condensed into a dry, choking fog that enveloped the headlights of passing cars, and crept with its stink into even the tightest houses. The residents could do little to keep the poison out of their lungs or the lungs of their children, and if they were poor, they could not even try. People told me it was taking years off their lives. Yet New Delhi was bursting its seams, because newcomers from rural India kept flooding in.

The big port city of Bombay has a reputation for being just as dirty, but on the day I got there, an ocean breeze was blowing, and in relative terms the air was clean. When I mentioned this to Pravin S. Nagarsheth, the shipbreaker I had come to see, he grew excited and said, "Yeah! Yeah!" because relativity was precisely the point he wanted to make to me. Nagarsheth was a nervous little man with a round and splotchy face and some missing teeth. He had been scrapping ships for nearly thirty-five years, first with a small yard here in Bombay, and then in a bigger way at Alang. He was also the president of the Indian shipbreakers' association, and as such he had taken the lead in the industry's defense. He had traveled to the Amsterdam shipbreaking conference to counter the reports of abuses at Alang. In his speech there he said, "All these write-ups, I would say, are biased, full of exaggerations.... One, however, wonders whether such reports are deliberately written for public consumption in affluent Western societies only.... The environmentalists and Greenpeace talk of future generations, but are least bothered about the plight of the present generation. Have they contributed anything constructive to mitigate the plight of the people living below the poverty line in developing countries? ... Living conditions of labor in Alang should not be looked at in isolation. It is the crisis of urbanization due to job scarcity. Large-scale slums have mushroomed in all cities.... The fact remains that workers at Alang are better paid and are probably safer than their counterparts back in the poor provinces of Orissa, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. To provide housing and better living conditions ... is financially impractical for a developing country like India, where forty-five percent of the population is living below the poverty line."

We met in the lobby of a shabby hotel in central Bombay. Nagarsheth kept leaning into me, grabbing my arm to punctuate his arguments. He said, "Everybody knows this is bad! It is not a point of dispute! What Greenpeace is saying is even excellent! But their ideology does not provide solutions! This generation cannot afford it!"

Nagarsheth seemed to worry that I would understand the country in some antiseptic way -- for its computer industry, its novelists, or maybe even its military might. But the India he wanted me to see was a place that related directly to Alang -- an India drowning in the poverty of its people. And so, rather than talking any more about shipbreaking, he insisted on showing me around Bombay. He guided me into the city's slums, which are said to be the largest in the world. Then he led me back toward the city center, for miles through a roadside hell where peasants lived wall-to-wall in scrap boxes and shacks, and naked children sat listless in the traffic's blue smoke as if waiting to die. Nagarsheth said, "Do you see this? Do you see this? You need to remember it when you get to Alang."

He was making a valid point about relative levels of misery. I saw another level a few days later in Bhavnagar, the nearest city to Alang, at a re-rolling mill, where hull plates from the ships were being torch cut, heated, and stretched into reinforcing bars. Bhavnagar is an uncrowded city by Indian standards, with a population of perhaps 600,000 in a physical shell that to a Westerner might seem better suited for perhaps a fourth of that. The re-rolling mill I visited was one of many there. It stood on the north edge of town, on a quiet dirt street wandered by cows, at the end of a crumbling brick wall, beyond the dust and din of the city's auto-rickshaws. The mill had a sagging iron gate. A traveler would normally pass it by, perhaps seeing it as a poor but peaceful scene. But I went inside, past an old brick building where clerks sat idle behind bulky typewriters on an outside porch, and on into the dark heart of the mill -- a large, open-sided shed where perhaps a hundred emaciated men moved through soot and heavy smoke, feeding scrap to a roaring furnace leaking flames from cracks in the side. The noise in there was deafening. The heat was so intense that in places I thought it might sear my lungs. The workers' clothes were black with carbon, as were their hair and their skin. Their faces were so sooty that their eyes seemed illuminated.

The furnace was long and low. The men working closest to the fire tried to protect themselves by wrapping heavy rags around their mouths and legs. They cut the steel plates into heavy strips, which they heaved into the inferno and dragged through the furnace before wrestling them free, red-hot, at the far end. Using long tongs, they slung the smoking metal, still brightly glowing, through a graduated series of rollers, which squeezed and lengthened it incrementally into the final product -- the reinforcing rods, which were piled together and allowed to cool. It was a punishing and dangerous procedure, requiring agility, strength, and speed, and also the calculation of risk. The workers were quite obviously exhausted by it. Some, I think, were slowly starving, trapped in that cycle of nutritional deficit all too common in South Asia, by which a man may gradually expend more calories on his job than his wages will allow him to replace.

On the Beach

I TRAVELED from Bhavnagar to Alang, thirty miles to the south, on a narrow road crowded with jitneys and trucks, choked with blue exhaust, and battered by the weight of steel scrap. The road ran like an industrial artery across plains of denuded farmland, on which impoverished villages endured in torpor and peasants scratched at the parched earth. Along the way stood a few open-air cafés, where truck drivers could stop for soft drinks and food, and a few small factories, where oxygen was concentrated into steel bottles to be mixed later with cooking gas for use in the cutting operations farther south. But otherwise the roadside scenery remained agricultural until several miles before Alang. There, next to a small house on the right, a collection of lifeboats listed in the dirt. The lifeboats marked the start of Alang's roadside marketplace, where specialized traders neatly sorted and resold secondary merchandise from the ships. There were yards for generators, motors, transformers, kitchen appliances, beds and other furniture, wires and pipes, cables, ropes, life rings, clothing, industrial fluids, and miscellaneous machinery. The traders lived among their goods. The buyers came from all over India.

The marketplace continued for several miles to Alang's main gate. But the best way to the beach for a Westerner, given Captain Pandey's concerns about foreigners, was a small side road that branched off a few miles before the main gate and wandered again through rural scenery. I passed a boy herding cows, three women carrying water, a turbaned farmer hoeing. The heat was oppressive. The air smelled of dung and dust. For a while it was almost possible to forget that the ocean was near. But then the road made a turn, and at the far end of a field an immense cargo ship rose above the trees. Behind it, fainter and in the haze, stood another. The ships seemed to emerge from the earth, as if the peasants had found a way to farm them.

My base at the beach was Plot 138. It was a busy patch of ground, bounded at the top by one of the standard sheet-metal fences. I threaded through piles of sorted scrap, past the smoke of cutting crews, past chanting gangs carrying heavy steel plate, past cables and chains and roaring diesel winches, to the water's edge, where the hulk of a 466-foot Japanese-built cargo ship called the Sun Ray, once registered in the Maldives, was being torn apart by an army of the poor. Four hundred men worked there, divided into three distinct groups -- a shipboard elite of cutters and their assistants, who were slicing the hull into multi-ton pieces; a ground crew of less experienced men, who winched those pieces partway up the beach and reduced them there to ten-foot sections of steel plate; and, finally, the masses of unskilled porters condemned to the end of the production line, where, piece by piece, they would eventually shoulder the entire weight of the hull, lugging the heavy plates to the upper beach and loading them into trucks -- belching monsters painted like Hindu shrines -- which would haul the scrap away. And that was just for the steel. Everywhere I looked stood the piles of secondary products awaiting disposal -- the barrels of oil and hydraulic fluid and all the assorted equipment destined for the roadside marketplace. In either direction I could look down the coast at a line of torn ships fading into the smoke of burning oil.

Alang at first is a scene of complete visual confusion; it begins to make sense only after about a week, when the visual impact fades, and the process of breaking a ship by hand sorts itself out into a series of simple, brutal activities. The first job is to shackle the ship more firmly to the ground. Using motorized winches and a combination of anchor chains and braided steel cables looped through holes cut into the bow, the workers draw the hull as high onto the beach as the ship's draft and trim allow, so that ideally the bow stands on dry ground even at high tide. The winches are diesel-powered machines each the size of a small bulldozer, staked firmly to the ground about halfway up the beach. The stress on the cables during the winching operation is enormous. They groan and clank under the load, and sometimes they snap dangerously. The workers are ordered to stand clear. Nonetheless, some winch operators sit unprotected by safety cages, and gamble that a broken cable will never recoil directly back at them. It's easy to imagine that sometimes they lose.

After the initial dragging is done, the crews climb aboard with ladders and ropes and begin to empty the ship's fuel tanks: they pump the good oil into barrels for resale, and slop the residual sludge of no commercial value onto dry ground, where it is burned. The empty tanks continue to produce volatile vapors, and pose a risk of explosion until they are aerated -- a tricky process that often involves cutting ventilation holes. The most experienced cutters are used for this work, because they are believed to have developed noses for dangerous vapors. Even so, there are explosions and fatalities -- though fewer now than before, because of slowly improving safety standards. On some ships the tanks can be sliced off whole, dropped into the water, and winched above the tide line for dissection and disposal. Cutting on hard ground is easier than cutting on the ship, and because the workers are therefore more likely to do the job right, it is also safer. But either way, the yard must demonstrate to Gujarat officials that the fuel tanks have been secured and neutralized before they will give the final authorization to proceed with the scrapping.

With the risk of explosion diminished, the breakers turn their attention to the ship's superstructure, the thin-walled quarters that typically rise five or six levels above the main deck, and in which, because of combustible wiring and wood paneling, the chance of a deadly fire cannot be ignored. The superstructure is like a ghost town, still full of the traces of its former inhabitants. Scattered about lie old books and magazines in various languages, nautical charts from faraway oceans, company manuals, years' worth of ship's logs, newspaper clippings, national flags, signal flags, radio frequency lists, union pamphlets, letters, clothes, posters, and sometimes a much-appreciated stock of liquor, narcotics, or pornography. The scrappers spread through the quarters like hungry scavengers, quickly removing the furniture and galley equipment, tearing into the wood paneling and asbestos insulation to get at the valuable plumbing, stripping out the wires, electronics, and instruments, and making a special effort to save the ship's bell, always in demand for use at Hindu temples. These treasures are roped down the side and hustled to the top of the beach by ground crews.

Then the cutting begins. It is surprising how few men are needed to handle the torches: by working simultaneously on the port and starboard sides, a dozen competent cutters, backed up by a larger number of assistants, can demolish an entire superstructure within two weeks. Gravity helps. Starting with the overhanging wings of the bridge, the cutters slice the superstructure into big sections. There is an art to this, because every ship is different. The decisions about where to cut are made by the yard's owner and the all-important shipboard supervisor. Within the logical demolition sequence (which with variations runs roughly from front to back and from top to bottom) the general idea is to cut off the largest section that can be cleared away from the ship by the shore-based winches. The height and geometry of the superstructure is a crucial consideration, because it affects the way the sections fall. If the work has been done right, when the final cut on a section is made, it falls clear of the hull. It lands on the tidal flat with a dull thump. The ground crew walks out to it, attaches a cable, and winches it higher onto the beach to carve it up. Meanwhile, the shipboard crews may already have dropped another section. At this early stage it can be gratifying work. If the superstructure is flimsy, the crews can make the metal rain.

But the work slows when they come to the hull, where the steel is heavier and harder to cut. At that point, even for veteran workers, there must be a moment of hesitation at the audacity of the business. Using little more than cooking gas and muscle power they will tear apart this immense monolith, which towers above the crowds on the sand. It will take six months or a year to finish the job; men will be injured, and some may die. Almost all will to some degree be poisoned by smoke and toxic substances -- and more seriously, no doubt, than they would have been on the streets of India's cities. Nonetheless, the poor cannot afford to be timid.

They go after the hull by cutting off the forward section of the bow, opening the ship's cavernous forward hold to the outside, and making room for an expanded force of shipboard cutting crews. Half of them continue to cut at the forward section, slowly moving aft; the other half burrow directly back through the ship, cutting away the internal bulkheads, until they come to the engine room, near the stern. The ship's engine is not usually saved, because generally it is worn out, and in any case it is often too large to be removed whole. The crews open ventilation holes through the sides of the hull, unbolt the engine, disconnect it from the shafts, and cut it apart crudely on the spot. They drag the pieces forward through the length of the ship with the help of small winches placed aboard for that purpose.

To understand why it is important to remove the engine early in the process, consider that the ship continues in part to float throughout the scrapping process, and that high tides lift it, allowing the progressive winchings by which, as the hull is consumed, it is drawn onto the beach. From the start the ship's trim is a consideration. If the angle at which the keel is floating does not match the slope of the ocean floor, the ship may hang up offshore. The trick is not to get the bow to ride high, as one might assume, but, rather, to keep the stern of an unladen ship from riding too low. The stern naturally rides low because of the weight of the superstructure, the engine, and the machinery installed there. Once the scrapping is under way, the correct trim can be maintained only by the judicious removal of weight. Cutting away the superstructure and removing the heavy bronze propeller does not fully compensate for the subsequent loss of the bow section, whose weight, because it lies so far forward of the ship's center of gravity, has a disproportionate effect on the trim. That is why the breakers must go in from the opened bow and take out the engine. Afterward the demolition proceeds so predictably, from bow to stern, that it is possible to mark its conclusion precisely when the ship's rudder lies at last on dry ground, submitting to the torches. The workers do not celebrate the achievement, because if they are lucky, the next ship has already arrived.

Plot 138, the yard that I settled into, was the domain of Paras Ship Breakers Ltd., a company owned by a man named Chiman Bai, who began his career as an errand boy in the ancient Bhavnagar market and rose to become a shopkeeper selling rice and wheat. Bai got into the shipbreaking business in 1983, when he responded to an obscure notice in the newspaper about the availability of plots at Alang. I never met him, I think because he felt awkward with foreigners; it was said that he still worked from a back office in the market and that he presided over an extended family of thirty-five, all of whom lived in a single house in Bhavnagar and ate their meals together in the traditional way, sitting on the kitchen floor. His younger brother, Jaysukh Bai, ran the shipbreaking operation day to day. He was a square-jawed, gray-haired man with a Hindu cloth bracelet and a diamond ring. He did business at an office in Bhavnagar every morning, and in the afternoon made his way to Alang, where he sat among his sons and nephews on a porch overlooking the yard. I sat with him sometimes, drinking the Indian cola called Thumbs Up, breathing the acrid smoke from the final cutting of ship parts, some of which was done nearby. Jaysukh Bai did not seem to notice the smoke. One of his nephews figured that I did. He distrusted me, and repeatedly made that clear. Once he said nastily, "The question I want to ask the environmentalists is if you should want to die first of starvation or pollution."

I said, "They say you don't have to make that choice."

He said, "That's bullshit."

In a place like Alang, he was probably right.


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