Bare facts

Alang, Gujarat. This is where ships from across the world are sent to be wrecked. A shipbreaking industry has emerged as a consequence, which is spelling doom for the ecology of the region

By Manish Tewari
Published: Sunday 15 March 1998

Bare facts

-- baleshwar, 24, will never walk again. While scrapping a ship at one of the 183 shipbreaking yards at Alang in district Bhavnagar, Gujarat, he fell from a height of 10 metres, suffering multiple fractures in his legs. His one-year tenure at the shipbreaking yard has also left Baleshwar with respiratory complications due to constant exposure to toxic fumes. This is Alang: not just another human tragedy in the morning newspaper, but an environmental nightmare come true.

At this largest shipbreaking yard of the world, nearly 45,000 workers scrap ships that sometimes contain hazardous wastes. According to the Gujarat Maritime Board (gmb), Ahmedabad, it cannibalises about 200 ships each year, churning out 2.6 million tonnes of scrap steel.Alang receives ships from across the world - even those which are not broken in the country of origin due to several environmental strictures, as shipbreaking involves a large number of dangerous pollutants including toxic wastes, oil, polychlorinated biphenyls (pcbs, which are extremely poisonous chemicals) and heavy metals. But the ships can be scrapped at Alang as environmental guidelines are not followed properly (see box: Send your garbage).

The Basel Action Network (ban), a coalition of international non-governmental organisations, working in the field of toxic and hazardous wastes, is of the opinion that there is a need for international legislation on shipbreaking. "Ships bound for breaking in another country must necessarily be detoxified in the territorial waters of the country to which the ship belongs," says an Indian spokesperson for ban. "What is happening is that Indian waters are the recipients of muck that originates in other countries," he adds. ban demands that ships destined for breaking be termed as "hazardous wastes" under the Basel Convention.

Anyone disputing the environmental hazards from the shipbreaking industry needs to visit Alang. The sun is hazed by smoke billowing from gas torches used to cut through the steel by labourers. They dump tonnes of chemicals, heavy metals and other dangerous substances recovered from the ships into the sea. The 10-km coastline is a hellish heap of scrap. "In our study, we found about 45 tonnes of solid wastes, broken steel pieces, glass wool, foam material and rubber pipes spread haphazardly within the plots each day," says S S Bala, zonal officer of the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) at Vadodara, who led a study on pollution levels at Alang. The wastes contain hazar-dous materials like oil, pcbs and heavy metals. It results in severe contamination of the seabed, points out Bala. Heavy metals on the seabed enter the marine food chain, finding their way into the fish eaten by humans.

Why Alang?
Good tides and weak enforcement favour the shipbreaking industry

 To be torn apart: ships await The geography of Alang makes it ideal for shipbreaking. The beach is low and tides are as high as 10 metres. During low tide, the sea recedes by three km. The industry was set up in Alang in 1982, egged by the demand for a safe haven for shipbreaking. By 1990, over 100 ships started landing up in Alang each year. In 1996-97, the industry scrapped a record 348 ships. The annual turnover of the industry stands at Rs 6,000 crore. The profit margins in the shipbreaking industry are huge and big-time contractors make unbelievable profits.

According to Mahesh Sampat, customs superintendent at Alang, shipbreakers ranked very high among traders from various businesses in Gujarat who disclosed their income under the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (vdis) of the Union government. "Nearly 40 per cent of the metal trade is illegal. The shipbreakers are in constant touch with politicians.Corruption is rampant, and a handful of people have things comfor-tably in control. If you take any action against them, they will reach the leaders easily," says Sampat.

The results of this nexus are disastrous. Ships that might be carrying toxic wastes, pcb s, solid wastes, oil and other hazardous materials are docked at Alang virtually unchecked. Customs officials ask the captain for a list of materials in the ship on the basis of which it is allowed to be beached. "My department does not have laboratories and other facilities to check whether any toxic material is present in the ship. So our officers largely rely on the captain's version," says Sampat. The customs depart-ment earns nearly Rs 400 crore as tax and Rs 20 crore as central excise from Alang. "Yet, we do not have adequate staff and facilities to meet the requirements of the industry," he says.

V A Pandey, additional port officer at the Alang Shipbreaking Yard, differs with Sampat. He rules out the possibi-lity that ships carrying toxic wastes have been beached at Alang. "Whenever such incidents come to our notice, we take appropriate action and do not give permission for beaching the ship," Pandey says. However, the checking process can only prevent the docking of gas-filled ships - even that in only a few of the cases. Besides, there are several loopholes in the system, as is evident from the fires and blasts that occur every few months.

Irrefutable evidence
The gmb, which monitors the shipbreaking industry in Alang, commissioned the Gujarat Ecology Commis-sion (gec), Vadodara, to conduct a study on the pollution levels in Alang. The Union ministry of steel commissioned Metal-lur-gical and Engineering Consultants (India) Limited (mecon) , Ranchi, for another study. Both the studies conclu-ded that pollution has increased considerably in the shipbreaking yard. A host of pollutants, such as asbestos, paint, scrap debris, gaskets, glass wool, oil, grease (petroleum hydrocarbons) and cement, have found their way into the marine environment near Alang, both the reports pointed out.

A team of researchers headed by S Bandyopadhyay, senior ecologist at the gec , found high levels of heavy metals like lead, zinc, nickel and tin in the yard. Bandyopadhyay points out that the wiring insulation and paints in several ships contain pcbs. "Paint coating outside and inside a ship is always toxic as it is needed to repel all biological forms from attacking the bottom layer which is in the water all the time," he says. "These anti-fouling agents can adversely affect the environment," he adds.

The cpcb found large amounts of oil in the area where the ships are scrapped during an investigation following a question raised in Parliament. This oil washes into the sea. Tests conducted on the sea water indicated oil and grease concentrations of 22 mg/litre, which is very high according to the cpcb. Labourers say that they take out a signi-ficant amount of oil from the ships before scrapping them. Still, some portion of the oil remains in the lower part of the ships. Sand is put in the remaining oil and thrown into the sea. Oil contamination can choke marine life.

The Ship Breakers Association of Alang informed the cpcb that some quantity of solid waste is burnt in the open. Bala says this could be leading to a considerable amount of air pollution from toxic fumes generated by the burning of glass wool and foamy materials. The cpcb estimates that around 250-300 kg of such material is burnt on each plot every day, the rest being disposed on land.

A case is pending in the Gujarat High Court to decide who is to provide domestic waste treatment facilities: gmb or the ship breakers. Pandey says that the gmb has engaged a consultant to plan a drainage and sewage treatment system.

Biological oxygen demand ( bod , the minimum amount of oxygen required to decompose organic compounds in water) was found to be unacceptably high in the cpcb study, indicating water contamination with domestic waste. "The amount of organic waste in the sea water near the coast is high. This problem is mainly due to the crowding of labourers living 20-30 metres from the coastline. Due to the absence of proper sanitation, the surrounding area is polluted by domestic waste," says Bandyopadhyay.

"Pathogens which are normally killed after coming into contact with saline water manage to survive in the area. It means that the pollution load is high. If it keeps on increasing at the current pace, the region may be in for an ecological disaster," warns Bandyopadhyay.

Death, disease and indifference of the officials haunt Alang

 The fire in an oil tanker at< The living conditions in labourers' settlements are indeed sub-human, admits a government official, asking not to be named. High pollution levels, lack of clean drinking water and cramped living conditions in Alang have badly affec-ted the health of labourers. There is no provision for potable water. "We have to buy drinking water," says Mahesh, 25, who works at plot number 50. The Saurashtra region, which includes Alang, is facing a severe water crisis due to groundwater depletion.

"Groundwater is becoming increasingly saline as people in the area are overdependent on it. The future of drinking water supply in the area is bleak," says A B Lowalekar, director of gec at Vadodara. "The gmb is drawing up plans for a dam project to ensure adequate water supply to the region," says Pandey.

The list of diseases prevalent in workers' settlement is frightening; leprosy, malaria, cholera, respiratory problems, dysentery and tuberculosis are there. gec researchers found that about 194 of the 20,000 workers at Alang had leprosy. "Nearly eight out of 10,000 Indians suffer from leprosy. If the figures from Alang are to be believed, then the incidence is very high in the area," says Dharam Shaktu, deputy director gene-ral (leprosy), Directorate General of Health Services (dghs), New Delhi.

An inadequate health-care system exists in the form of Alang's one and only hospital set up with an assistance of Rs 250,000 from the gmb. "We do not call it a hospital which does have even an ambulance and one bottle of blood," says Bhadresh Pandiya, medical officer at the hospital. The hospital, which does not even have a x-ray machine, receives hundreds of patients every day.

"Last year, nearly 350 labourers were detected to be suffering from leprosy," says Hitesh Ghohil, physician at the hospital. "The cases may even be higher in the coming days if proper living conditions are not provided to the labourers," he warns. Several workers suffer respiratory problems, which Ghohil attributes to air pollution.

Pandey defends the role of gmb. "We are conducting leprosy detection camps every month. The gmb ensures that every patient gets free medical treatment," he says.

Living dangerously
Death lurks behind every giant sheet of steel peeled off from a ship. Since April 1997, there have been three major fires and explosions in the ships. An oil tanker beached at plot number 48 exploded on April 22, 1997. Workers say that nearly 30 people died, though officials say the toll was 16. The impact was so strong that a 700-tonne steel plate was blown out of the ship's body. Reason: the ship was not gas-free. When workers started cutting the ship's body with the help of gas cutters, it caught fire, blowing off the gas cylinders and creating a massive explosion.

In another accident, Felixcon , a Russian fish factory ship, caught fire. Two people died and 22 were injured. Several labourers were killed due to fires in another fish factory ship at plot number 24, and in a general cargo vessel beached at plot number 24 (r). In the absence of effective fire and safety systems, it takes very long to extinguish even small fires at Alang. "It took nearly 10 days to control the smallest of the three fires," says a shipbreaker on the condition of anonymity. "We do not get time to clean oil from the ships as muqa-dams (supervisors) order us to start cutting the ship immediately after it is beached. We are helpless," says Mahesh.

One of the shipbreakers sums up the dangers involved in cutting the ships. "Nearly 300 low-pressure gas cylinders are always kept at every yard in a haphazard manner. These are used for cutting a ship's body. When a new ship is beached, at least 100 gas cylinders are taken inside the ship. Before reaching the yard, these ships carry hydrocarbons such as diesel, furnace oil and lubricating oil that are required to operate the ship till the beaching is completed.

"Most of the time, cutting is started without properly cleaning these hydrocarbons. The moment a high-pressure flame comes in contact with hydrocarbon vapour, there is a big blast," he says. The families of most of the workers who die in accidents do not get compensation. Only those enlisted with the insurance department do. Tapan Sen, secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Unions (citu), New Delhi, says citu would soon launch major initiatives to protect the cause of labourers at Alang.

Desperately seeking solutions
Bala says that the cpcb has recommen-ded a common incineration facility at the yard to burn off hazardous wastes. But there are objections. "They are wrong to assume that by incinerating hazardous wastes, the problem would be solved," says a ban spokesperson. "Comm-unities in the West have realised that incineration only creates a much more insidious danger by releasing dioxins and furans, which are hormone disrupters," he avers. The cpcb has also recommended an organised landfill site for non-toxic solid wastes and installing facilities to isolate oil spills.

The gec has said in its report that shipbreaking works should be discouraged on-shore. "You can easily dispose off effluents scattered on the land by burning or removing it from the area," observes Bandyopadhyay.

As part of its guidelines, cpcb has chalked out an environment management plan and a disaster management plan. Under the environment management plan, shipbreakers' units will have to obtain permission from the State Pollution Control Board of Gujarat. At the same time, it has also asked the board to monitor transboundary movement of ships at Alang. As per the plans, the board will monitor the levels of hazardous wastes, solid wastes and water pollution.

Pandey defends the role of gmb in checking pollution in Alang. "The gmb has chalked out several plans to ensure that pollution levels do not rise above the critical level. It spent about Rs 35 lakh on the gec study. We are concerned about these problems," he says. How much? Only time will tell.




Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.