It is said that captains weep when their
ships are beached at Alang. At this maritime necropolis in Gujarat, the
aged behemoths of the sea arrive to rest in pieces. Infernos belch
sparks and spew toxic fumes as the scream of searing metal swallows the
cries of seagulls. Death looms murkily over the ship-breaking yard, and
not for the vessels alone.
Decommissioned and docked for the
last time against a backdrop of condemned vessels, the ship is hauled to
the slaughterhouse, where workers strip it to fragments. Acetylene
torches scythe yawning gashes on the rusty stern. Then the fallen corpse
is shredded. The engine, diesel motor, pumps, winches, crane, radar and
electronic equipment are sent to be reincarnated in a shipbuilding yard
30 km away.
The demolition is carried out with structural
precision to prevent the ship from careening on its keel. Large windows
are torn into the hollow hull to let in light for the workers. Pulleys
and chains transport the dismembered chunks towards the land. In four
weeks the ship is reduced to nearly half its original volume. By the
eighth week, it disappears completely into secondhand markets and steel
rerolling mills in the hinterland.
Death looms over Alang, and not for the
ships alone. As acetylene torches scythe gashes on the rusty stern,
workers toil without helmets or safety masks, battling toxic chemical
"Every day one ship, every day one dead,"
goes a saying in Alang. Coughing workers brave the stench of burning
plastic wafting through dense palls of asbestos dust. Cylinder blasts,
fire and falling objects constantly stalk these labourers, most of whom
are migrants from Bihar, Bengal and Bangladesh. Health, hygiene and
pollution standards are flung out of the nearest porthole, as they toil
for low wages, without basic safety masks or helmets. Unaware of the
hazards, they are vulnerable to fatal illness from inhaling heavy metal
fumes and toxic chemicals like polycyclic aromatics and dioxins in
paints and other chemicals.
Joining a German Greenpeace team led
by Andreas Bernstorff, sent by 'Association of Friends of Large Merchant
Ships, Hamburg', this correspondent visited the ship-breaking yard at
Darukhana in Mumbai.
Heaps of plastic waste litter the yard and
effluents choke the sea. In November last, Greenpeace led a campaign
against the export of ships containing toxic materials to Asian
"Of the 45,000 ships in the world,
about 700 are decommissioned every year, after about 29 years at sea,"
said Bernstorff, adding that ships built around 1970 contain more
asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and compounds of toxic heavy
metals like cadmium, arsenic, lead, chromium, copper and zinc.
November, Greenpeace and Basel Action Network (BAN) targeted Alang,
campaigning against the export of ships containing toxic materials to
Asian scrapyards. India gets about 500 every year, supplying plants with
15 per cent of their raw steel.
Heaps of plastic waste litter
the yard and dangerous effluents choke the sea, contravening
international regulations and enduring the apathy of the government.
As the midday heat competes with scorching chemical fires,
workers troop in and out of the hollow shell of what was once a massive
container ship, waiting for salvation to touch the littered shores of