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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 three.)

Sometimes I wandered across the road, into the crowded shantytown where the workers lived, a place with shacks built of wood and ship's paneling, some on stilts over a malarial marsh that bordered the beach. There were no latrines at Alang, in part because few of the men would have used them. They preferred simply to relieve themselves in nearby bushes, as they had in the farming hamlets from which they came. But of course Alang was much larger than a hamlet, and as a result the air there was filled with fecal odors, which mixed with the waves of smoke and industrial dust to permeate the settlement with a potent stench. People got used to it, as they did to the mosquitoes, and the flies. Discomfort was an accepted part of living in Alang, as was disease. Thousands of workers who were sick, injured, or unemployed lingered in the shantytown during the day, lying on scavenged linoleum floors by open doorways, or sitting outside in the thin shade of the walls. There were almost no wives or children. As in other migrant camps, drunkenness, prostitution, and violence were never far away.

Nonetheless, a semblance of normalcy was maintained. For instance, Alang had a good drinking-water system, a network of communal cisterns supplied by truck, which was Captain Pandey's pride. It also had Hindu shrines, informal cricket fields, and enough spare power for its commercial district to run refrigerators and gay little strings of lights. Each evening when the workday was done, the settlement came to life. The workers cooked outside their shacks in small groups intent on the food, and afterward, feeling renewed, they gathered in the light from the cafés and talked. They laughed. They listened to music. Sometimes they held religious processions. Sometimes they danced. And then on Sundays, when by law all the shipbreaking yards were closed, they washed, dressed up, and strolled among friends, looking fresh and clean-cut.

One evening a small group from Plot 138 invited me to sit with them outside their shack, and one of them went off into the slum and came back with a man who could translate. It was awkward for everyone. The men were formal with me. I asked about their work. They knew it was risky and could make them sick, but they seemed more interested in letting me know they were cutters, and stood high on the scrapyard scale. I asked about their bosses, and they named some of the supervisors who had given them jobs. They said that in other yards some of the supervisors were abusive. They offered no opinions about Jaysukh Bai, maybe because they had seen me with him.

After a week Pravin Nagarsheth arrived from Bombay to check on his shipyard, a few plots down from Plot 138. A ship lay there half consumed on the beach. Nagarsheth brought his son-in-law with him, a slim city boy in undersized Ray-Bans who slipped carefully around the workers and confided to me, "The first time I came here, I was totally zapped." He meant he was surprised. He seemed a bit precious. But Nagarsheth was not like that, and neither was Jaysukh Bai. They were direct men who walked willingly among their laborers; and though they had grown wealthy on the backs of the poor, they had maintained a connection to them nonetheless. The alternative seemed to be the disengagement I had witnessed in New Delhi and Bombay, where the upper levels of society were floating free of the ground, aided by the airlines and the Internet, as if the poverty in India were a geographic inconvenience. Nagarsheth's own daughter had graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in computer science, and he was proud of her. But standing beside him on the beach, in the midst of his piles of scrap, I suspected he knew that shipbreakers were unfashionable among the Indian elites. He may even have been able to see himself as they did -- an angry little man with a propensity for mucking around in the world's garbage. In the foreign press I had discerned an undertone of mockery about such things, a vestige of the old colonial amusement at the very idea of native kings. Even the Baltimore Sun had indulged in the fun, quoting an interior decorator from Bombay who ridiculed the flamboyant tastes on exhibit in the shipbreakers' big houses in Bhavnagar. Such public amusement was of course noticed elsewhere in India, especially among the ruling classes, who were so successfully joining the "global" (meaning Westernized) society. Now, in Bombay and New Delhi, a young and soon to be powerful generation was returning from European and American universities speaking the language of environmentalism. And Alang was becoming an embarrassment.

The Future of Alang

ALANG has become a metaphor in the crucial struggle of our time -- that between the First World and the Third, the rich and the poor. Beneath our perspectives on a shrinking world lurks an opposing reality, hidden in the poverty of places like South Asia, of a world that is becoming larger -- and unmanageably so. Do we share a global ecology? On a certain level it's obvious that we do, and that therefore, at last, a genuine scientific argument can be made for the imposition of Western knowledge. But making this argument is difficult, full of political risk and the opportunity for self-delusion. In practice, the world is as much a human construct as a natural one. The people who inhabit it have such radically different experiences in life that it can be almost surprising that they share the same air. This is inherently hard to accept from a distance. Too often we have a view of what is desirable for some other part of the world which is so detached from daily existence there that it becomes counterproductive, or even inhumane. Alang is a typical case. Resentful Indians kept saying to me, "You had your industrial revolution, and so we should have ours."I kept suggesting in return that history is not so symmetrical. But of course they knew that already, and viewed Alang with more complexity than they could express to me, and were using a simplified argument they felt I might understand. On the ship-scrapping beach at Chittagong, in Bangladesh, I met an angry man who took the simplest approach. He said, "You are sitting on top of the World Trade Center, sniffing fresh air, and talking about it. You don't know anything."

From the archives:

"Our Real China Problem," by Mark Herstgaard (November, 1997)
Although the Chinese government knows the environment needs protection, it fears that doing the right thing could be political suicide.

"Must It Be the Rest Against the West?", by Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy (December, 1994)
"We are heading into the twenty-first century in a world consisting for the most part of a relatively small number of rich, satiated, demographically stagnant societies and a large number of poverty-stricken, resource-depleted nations whose populations are doubling every twenty-five years or less."

He was angry about the West's presumptuousness and its strength. He was angry about people like Claire Tielens, at Greenpeace. When I talked to Tielens in Amsterdam, she was unyielding about Greenpeace's demands. She said, "Ships should not be scrapped in Asia unless they are decontaminated and they don't contain toxic materials. New ships should be built in such a way that they can be scrapped safely -- so without hazardous materials if possible. The export of toxin-containing ships from Western countries to developing countries should be stopped. And if possible, ships should be cleaned throughout their lifetime. If they export clean steel, that's fine with us."

I said, "But ships will always contain toxic wastes. Is it economically possible to ..."

"'Economically'? Well, of course that's a very flexible term."

I thought the economics might be less flexible than she believed. One of the twists in this story is that the U.S. government, an entity that Greenpeace has a prerogative to dislike, has become without question the world's most principled shipowner, and as such is leading the way in establishing the real costs of doing things right. I spent an afternoon last winter at an anchorage run by the Maritime Administration on the James River in Virginia, climbing through floating wrecks among the ever-growing number of government derelicts awaiting a proper domestic disposal. On one ship a workman had painted SINK ME! as a way of tempting fate. All these ships were rusting through. The annual costs for routine monitoring, pumping, and patching amounted to an average of about $20,000 per vessel. That may not seem like much, but many of the hulls were in such poor condition that to keep them from sinking, they would soon have to be dry-docked for million-dollar repairs -- only to be towed back to their moorings to continue rusting. The ships could now be bought for a mere $10 each, but even at that price there were no takers. At the Maritime Administration's headquarters in Washington, D.C., people recognized the absurdity of the situation and could laugh about it. All they could do was hope for congressional funding to pay for the scrapping of the ships.

Meanwhile, the Navy was proceeding with its four-ship, $13.3 million pilot project. Dockside at Baltimore Marine Industries the next day I visited a small frigate named the Patterson that was being meticulously dismantled by a crew of fifty-four specialists working under the close supervision of a former Navy diver, who informed me, when I asked about the schedule and cost, that safety and a clean environment were his main concerns. His ship had space-suited workers, positive-pressure filtered ventilation, sealed hazardous-materials bins, color-coded placards, and micron socks hanging from the scuppers to purify the rainwater that drained from its immaculate decks. I realized I was in the presence of a shipbreaking pioneer. He understood the ethical need to spend millions more on a useless ship than its steel was worth. He consulted with chemists, liaison people, and all sorts of engineers. He shared information openly with his competitors, and expected them to do the same. He enforced a wide range of regulations, and fairly. He worked well with unions. He even took time to respect the memory of the Patterson's sailors. His shipbreaking mission was so righteous it was practically Calvinistic.

That was true of Greenpeace's mission too. But there was a strange reversal. The U.S. Navy for once was concentrating on its own local problem, while Greenpeace was insisting that it had a mandate from "the global society" and "citizens of this planet." Words like those can come across as direct threats of conquest -- all the more so in weak and uncertain places like the impoverished parts of India that are already suffering from the disengagement of the elites.

I don't think Claire Tielens worried about such sensitivities. She told me that she had chosen her path because she wanted to fight injustice. She was a true idealist. But she did not feel reluctant to say "The recycling of toxic waste is such a hazardous activity that you cannot leave it to a developing country to do that. People say 'Why don't we export our knowledge and technology, and they can improve their conditions, and everything will be fine.' But nothing will be fine, because it's not just a matter of know-how and technology. Because to successfully export our environmental knowledge to India, you would also have to export the whole way society is organized." She was right about that, of course. But whereas others might hesitate over the implications of such ideas, she was not about to question the Greenpeace crusade. Her terms were unconditional: if she had her way, India would have to lose.

WHAT Greenpeace wants from shipbreaking must seem in the tidy confines of Holland to be perfectly fair -- essentially, to treat shipping as if it were any other orderly industry, and to hold it responsible for its toxic by-products and the safety of its workers. The problem is that shipping is like the larger world in which it operates -- an inherently disorderly affair, existing mostly beyond the reach of nations and their laws, beyond the dikes and coastal horizons, and out across the open seas. It is not exactly a criminal industry, but it is an amoral and stubbornly anarchic one. And it admits as much about itself: at last June's shipbreaking conference in Amsterdam one of the all-important London-based maritime insurers raised the fear that if somehow the reforms go through, even assuming they apply only to the most visible European shippers, there will be a corresponding increase in mysterious sinkings.

But others in the business told me that the more likely effect of the reforms, as long as money can be made in Third World scrap, would simply be a new and less direct route to Asia: ships would pass through more hands, would maybe live longer plying faraway waters under new names and flags, and would still end up dying on some filthy beach. Such changes are already happening, though it will be a year or more before Greenpeace's campaign results in any new laws in the European Union and at the International Maritime Organization. There is evidence that some European shippers have begun to find new foreign buyers for vessels that they would normally have sold directly to scrappers, and Shell has recently decided to re-inspect and retain certain aging tankers rather than face the wrath of Greenpeace again. Paradoxically, such policies may lead to an increase in hull failures and spills -- currently a big problem on the oceans. The lovely coast of Brittany will suffer for many years because of the loss of the Erika -- a decrepit Maltese-registered tanker, overdue for scrapping, that broke in two off Brest last winter. Greenpeace protested the lax enforcement of European port controls -- to good effect. But on the scale of the world, shipping is terribly difficult to police.

Few observers seriously believe that as a result of Western pressures, South Asia as a whole will now lose the scrapping business. But this offers little solace to the scrappers at Alang, because there is serious competition within the region, especially from Bangladesh. At Chittagong starvation wages are paid and labor and safety regulations are utterly lacking, so a shipbreaker can send a thousand barefoot men to tear apart a single vessel and scrap even a supertanker in six months. Bangladesh is not so much a nation as a condition of distress, and any attempt to regulate the industry there would obviously be futile. As a result of this commercial advantage, the Bangladeshis can pay top dollar for ships. During my stay at Alang such international competition had forced the bidding level for scrap ships above the price necessary to break even within India, and the scrappers currently acquiring vessels were having to gamble on a significant rise in the Indian metal market. It was a dangerous time.

Pravin Nagarsheth was not sanguine about Alang's prospects. He worried that the Indian beach had been singled out for special criticism, and that the publicity of the Greenpeace campaign was exacerbating the existing competitive pressures. There was evidence, he said, that some of the biggest shippers had begun quietly to shy away from India entirely, and to direct their ships to more discreet beaches. He worried also about the process within India whereby the European campaign seemed to be changing domestic attitudes toward Alang -- a change that in the end may prove more threatening to the work there than the eventual enactment of foreign laws. Either way, Nagarsheth wanted me to know how little it would take to destroy Alang.

Jaysukh Bai, the boss of Plot 138, was a relief to me, because he seemed almost unaware that his work might be considered wrong. He was a simple man, who knew the mechanics of the trade. As if I might not have heard, he said, "There are certain Western lobbies who are interested that shipbreaking not continue." But he never once mentioned any concern for safety or the environment. He never once mentioned his workers. He said, "I am worried about the future. What is important is the turnaround time. If there are too many rules to comply with, we will waste time." It was a statement of fact, hard to argue with. I asked him how many ships he had broken. He counted on his fingers, because he remembered every one. Eventually he answered: thirty-eight. He told me they included the biggest ship ever grounded at Alang, a French supertanker of 52,000 tons. Those were the good old days. With that ship Captain Pandey must have had great fun.

The one here now, the old Sun Ray from the Maldives, was only 15,000 tons, but it seemed very big to me. Jaysukh Bai told me he could do the job on it, start to finish, in a mere four months. That was very fast, and he may have been bragging. But only one month into it the superstructure and fuel tanks had been cut up and hauled away, and the lightened hull was being winched forward on the high tides and consumed with voracious efficiency. Even the birds joined in, pecking through the debris along the waterline, as alert as any man on the shore to the shreds of opportunity -- a shard of torn plywood, pieces of wire for nest building, splinters of steel. I went down to the ship when I could, past the ground crews who by now had grown used to my presence. At the torn bow I climbed through the broken bilge into the huge forward cargo hold, now open to the sky. The ship was mine to wander -- up precarious ladders to the main deck high above, through passageways and equipment rooms where the peeling paint and rusted steel gave evidence of the years of wandering and hard use, and ultimately of neglect. Nonetheless, I felt a sort of awe, and was never in a hurry to leave. After climbing back down from the main deck into the hold, I sometimes walked deeper still into the depths of the ship. It was eerie and dim on the inside, an immense man-made cavern filled with hoarse warning cries, the hiss of torches, sparks, smoke, heavy hammering, the sound of falling debris. It had paths made of narrow beams with oil-slick footing, and sudden gaping holes that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. If you fell there, you could certainly die. But after the glare and heat outside, it was also pleasantly cool. The workers did not seem to mind my presence, or even to wonder about it. They appeared sometimes like ghosts, moving fast and in file without speaking. They were very dirty. They were very poor. But they lacked the look of death that I had seen on the men in the Bhavnagar re-rolling mill. They were purposeful. Toward the stern, where sunlight streamed through rough-cut ventilation holes and struck the oil-blackened walls, the towering engine room had the Gothic beauty of a cathedral.

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

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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