Dead ships, toxic business

Miranda Kennedy May 5, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If you really want to make money in the global economy, get into the shipping business. Ninety percent of everything that moves around the world, from computers to car parts, moves by sea. Lloyds of London says there are almost 50,000 merchant ships out there. Oil tankers, passenger liners, and cargo ships. Of course, all of them will one day meet their end. But even then they’re big business. Miranda Kennedy reports from the northwest coast of India.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: This is where the world sends its ships to die. American cruise liners and Soviet war tankers are belched up on this gray industrial shore like whale carcasses.

Workers wrench apart their toxic insides: steel plates insulated with asbestos, and engine rooms filled with PCBs. The wood will be resold and reappear later, as hotel room furniture. The steel will be melted down and refashioned as water pipes and refrigerators.

At the height of India’s ship breaking industry, the motto at Alang was “a ship a day, a death a day”— and that referred to the number of workers killed.

KIRITSIN GOHIL: It’s like fighting a war. If there’s no casualty, you can’t call it a war.

Captain Kiritsin Gohil, the officer in charge here, admits that ship-breaking is a risky job.

GOHIL: The risks are, it’s heavy metal you’re cutting, and the metal is falling, so there are chances of accidents.

But environmentalists say the real dangers may take years to show up. Greenpeace estimates that because of exposure to asbestos, one of every four Alang workers will get cancer at some point in their lives. Under pressure from environmentalists, the Indian government started enforcing safety regulations a couple years ago. In February, protestors forced a decommissioned French aircraft carrier out of Indian waters. Nitin Modi, head of the Alang Scrap Merchants Association, says some of that has improved working conditions.

NITIN MODI [translation]: This protest by Greenpeace actually has brought some relief to these workers, because since the last year, goggles, helmet, gloves and gumboots, these are compulsory for all the workers. And it happened since the last one year.

But all the publicity around the environmental intervention here has been a double-edged sword. The town of Alang was created to support the ship-breaking industry 25 years ago. Even the houses and restaurants are built from ship materials. It’s literally responsible for the whole economy of the town.

The shipyard used to employ 40,000 workers. But now there’s only 4,000 left. This year only 100 ships have come for breaking, down from around 300. That’s many fewer ships for Modi and the other traders to harvest scrap from. Modi’s worried that soon the ships will stop coming altogether.

MODI [translation]: This should not be closed down, because not only the workers, but there are a hundred thousand people involved in this. Not only the traders like us, but even the truck operators, the truck drivers, the workers that we employ. If this gets closed down where do these people go.

Modi used to make a good living, reselling plywood and steel. But these days, he’s basically reduced to selling random junk off the ships because he cant get enough big ticket items. His scrap yard is like a pirates’ treasure trove: filled with the strange loot of ships. He’s got Pepsi vending machines, diesel generators from World War Two, gallon jugs marked “hazardous waste” and even less useful things.

KENNEDY: Russian cockroach spray! It’s a rusted can of Russian cockroach spray. Plastic forks. Nylon rope. Industrial goggles, and an army knife . . .

Alang hasn’t worked out how to retool its own economy yet. The options are pretty limited — theres no industry or agriculture here. But shipowners have already come up with new destinations for their spent vessels. Theyre sending them to Bangladesh and Pakistan instead, where government laws make it easier for them to dump their polluted cargo.

In Alang, Im Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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