While the debate between two contrasting views of economic development, growth-oriented outlook versus growth with redistribution of wealth, has become a part of our current political discourse, our coasts have become mute spectators. Unfortunately, there has been no significant growth in maritime trade nor there is any respect for human lives, forget about redistribution of wealth. Don’t draw any number from our baffling government statistical reports to claim growth. Rather look at China, a nation of the similar age and socio-demographic burdens, which is even boasting (outside its coast) one of the largest ports at Colombo at about 200 miles from Indian coast, the capacity none of our ports can afford. While China is looking to puncture American isthmus at Nicaragua to accommodate its largest ever ships that even upgraded Panama Canal cannot handle, India is competing with its poor neighbours like Pakistan and Bangladesh to convert its coast into ships graveyard.
Shipbreaking is the process of dismantling an obsolete ship by removing all equipment, cutting down and burning down parts with an objective of recycling the structure of the ship. The process involves metal cutting and disposal, paint removal, entry into dangerous localities inside ship, work on elevated surfaces, particularly near deck openings and edges, bilge and ballast water removal, oil and fuel removal and tank cleaning, removal and disposal of ship’s machinery, operations involving cranes, gear, and equipment for material handling, cutting and welding operations and use of compressed gas apart from many others. Without adequate safety measures, and with continual exposure to hazardous materials like asbestos, lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), etc., it raises grave concerns about environment safety and health issues for workers in this industry apart from people living along the coastline. In fact, large population of workers, of the range of 40 thousands, work in such industry in India itself.
While Gujarat claims its economic superiority through the incessant propaganda by its government, the census town Alang in its coast tells pathetic story of workers living in slave-like conditions. The current government at centre, while claiming to be messiah of social justice in the country, does not care to sign or make public pronouncement of its view about Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009 that prescribes adequate safety to human and environment associated with this booming industry. They cannot hide themselves with another statistics that no country came forward to ratify before June this year (Norway is first to accede to the recycling treaty). On the other hand, the media mostly evade the very responsibility of publicising the exploitation of workers and the increasing pollution threatening natural ecosystem; however, any report published would carry only one side of the story (ref: All Above Board | Rupee’s slide pinches Alang ship breakers).
In fact, the boom (ref: Booming Scrap Business: Ship-Breaking Lessons from the Exxon Valdez) has resulted due to un-usefulness of large ships after 2008 economic resets; those found their way to Alang apart from other shipbreaking sites in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. One may wonder why Indian coast is getting more populated with recycling orders after ships go past their useful lifespan when India is still an insignificant global player in maritime trade. To keep the matter straight, it is the developed countries which send their aging ships on high sea to Indian coast (apart from Bangladesh and Pakistan, of course) for breaking. This has been a way to avoid their countries’ stringent environmental and labour laws and to reduce the cost of recycling while bypassing the Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (that is aloof about action of sending ships for breaking without complying with requisite standards for safety and protection of labour force and environment when the ship is out of the territorial water of the country of origin). The countries like India offer an excellent deal with obsolete ships being purchased with millions of dollars while dismantling being done with almost no cost!
We should mind. We certainly do not want to make the graveyard of ships into that of human and marine life.