Deep inside Chittagong's shipbreaking yards

By Kushal Pal Singh Yadav
Published: Sunday 15 April 2007

Deep inside Chittagong's shipbreaking yards

-- (Credit: KUSHAL P S YADAV / CSE)The drive to the Chittagong shipbreaking yards betrays the character of the destination. The road is dotted with shops selling remnants of once-floating behemoths. Timber, torn out of ships, and wood in all shapes and sizes being sold are the most common sight. This is scrap wood and will be used in the construction business, I am told. In fact, all extractable parts of a ship is removed and sold.

Extract and sell Then, there is furniture. Of every possible kind. Also chandeliers. "Most of these have been taken out of luxury cruise ships," Mohammed Monsur Ali, assistant secretary, Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (bsba), tells me. Toilet fittings, the next in the league of accessories, need to be 'extracted' properly so that they can be sold, says our driver.

Then follow shops selling boilers, insulation sheets, small and heavy machinery, cylinders and equipment from engine rooms.These are items that contain a lot of other wastes, besides metal and steel, and cannot be used in the steel/metal recycling business. Of these a significant component is asbestos--a lot of it--which shipyard workers and owners of shops are continuously exposed to.

Next, we encounter hundreds of bright red life-saving boats. Some are for sale, others just lie around, piled one on top of the other on a small riverbed. Ironically, they have become part of a trade that could take lives instead of delivering them
The organisers of a meeting on asbestos and shipbreaking held in December 2006 in Chittagong had promised those attending the meet a visit to the shipbreaking yards. These yards, along with the Alang shipbreaking yard in India and a few others in Pakistan, are where 90 per cent of the world's decommissioned ships meet their final end. Having heard tales about how ships are driven at full speed into beaches where they are scavenged and ripped apart, the urge to see how ships are made to 'vanish' was tremendous.

I was equally inquisitive about workers' conditions at Chittagong because back home there is serious debate over the condition of workers at the Alang shipbreaking yard. While yards at Alang may be only a little better than the ones at Chittagong in terms of environmental and occupation health conditions, the owners at Chittagong are much more transparent. This kind of visit would not have been possible in India. Any stranger, let alone a journalist, is not allowed within a kilometre of the Alang yards. Thus, visits more often than not need to be stage-managed. Reasons enough why I was somewhat taken aback at the candour of the owners of the Chittagong yards.

Our reception, organised by bsba and the owners of the yards, was warm and I being a journalist from an Indian environmental magazine did not seem to bother them at all. This set the tone for the visit.

Leaving the shops behind, we turn down an unmetalled road. "This is Sitakunda village. This is where the yards begin," our driver announces. On both sides of the roads are shanty townships where workers live. And between hutments are small gardens and huge piles of waste, which lie strewn around for it cannot be sold.
Downturn The yard we visit is one of the biggest in Chittagong owned by Md Lokman Hakim. His visiting card proclaims the name of his shipbreaking unit as Ziri Subader Steel Re-rolling Mills. On entering the unit, we meet the dead gaze of a huge open space with thousands of tonnes of scrap filling it up. Next to the entrance, are hundreds of gas cylinders, which fuel the blowtorches and about 300 metres further down, is the beach. The beach is not sandy but more like oil-sludge--black and highly contaminated. And we can see a ship in the process of being broken. Half the ship has already been dismantled exposing a vacant hold.Down to Earth It used to be a Japanese ferry vessel, Ali tells me. There are four other ships, two on the beach and two docked a little further in the sea, awaiting their turn.

Hundreds of workers are spread over a huge area, busy in different stages of work. There are more than 500 workers in this yard. They can be seen taking apart huge chunks of metal with their blowtorches inside the ferry vessel. Others then break them into smaller pieces. Another lot is working on a heap of various other components trying to salvage whatever metal and steel that they can. "This business is for steel," Ali informs us as we embark on the ship being dismantled. About 95 per cent of a ship's body is made of mild steel, 2 per cent of stainless steel and 3 per cent constitute metals such as brass, aluminium, gun metal, copper and others.

Recycled steel is used in the construction trade. "Steel recovered from these ships is currently sold at about us $450 per tonne," says Ali, who gets chatting about the trade. He says they are now losing market. "Earlier, more ships used to come to us for breaking but now the market is very low," he rues. In 2001, ships worth 17 lakh dead weight tonne (dwt) were 'imported' into Chittagong. "But this year we have only imported 10 lakh dwt," Ali says. He adds that Tk 15 crore). A container vessel, which cost him approximately us$9.4 million (Tk 65 crore prices of old ships have been rising in the international market. The intense competition between Chittagong, Alang and Pakistan is driving the prices up further.

The other two ships docked at the beach are called Sreesurat and Kawanua. Kawanua bears a number--ind 7652773. Hakim informs us that he had bought the Japanese ferry vessel for approximately us $2.1 million was made in France but came to Hakim's yard from Singapore. Kawanua was bought for us $400,000 (Tk 3 core).

Blue Lady saga
"I wanted to purchase the ss Norway (Blue Lady) but our government did not give us permission," says Hakim. He had in fact spent two days and two nights inside the Blue Lady inspecting it. According to him, the Bangladeshi authorities had rejected the ship because of 'pollution' concerns.

Someone else explains that it was because of asbestos and polychlorinated biophenyls (pcbs). I tell Hakim that Blue Lady is currently embroiled in a legal controversy in the Supreme Court of India and might be sent back (see 'Strictures on Blue Lady', Down To Earth, December 31, 2006). His eyes light up. "I still want to buy that ship. Can you please help me?" he almost pleads while dialling a number on his phone. He then gives me the phone and person at the other end starts enquiring about the legal status and other details of the Blue Lady. He asks me if I can help them acquire it if the Indian authorities reject it. But haven't the Bangladeshi authorities already rejected it? Hakim reiterates it was a mistake and they want to try again. In any case, it is just one of the hundreds of similar ships that dock in Chittagong each year, he adds.

In six months, from July to December 2006, just over 100 ships reached Chittagong. "Although the total number of ships coming here has increased, these are smaller and therefore the total amount of steel that we can extract has gone down. We can get between 3,000 to 8,000 tonnes of steel from these," says Ali. "In the past, there have been ships from which we have been able to extract more than 20,000 tonnes of steel but we do not get them anymore," he adds.

Down to Earth
Bare labour
We then come across a group of workers trying to lift a huge cylindrical metal plate. "Labour is mostly contractual here," says Bishwajit Roy, a member of our group and Chittagong-based occupational and environmental health expert. Roy has done extensive research on the shipbreaking yards in Chittagong. But where do the labourers come from? I ask. "They are mostly migrants and come from all over Bangladesh. Neelbavari, Jamalpur, Kolnibari and some other areas," says Roy. These are some of the poorest areas in Bangladesh and people are forced to migrate to these yards. The workers are paid approximately between us $85 and us $170 (Tk 6,000-12,000) per month, depending on skill levels. Most work for a few months, collect some money and return home during the farming season.

What about occupational health? None of the workers seem to be wearing masks, gloves or any sort of protective clothing. "They do not use such things here. It is cumbersome," says Roy. As the dialogue continues, we find a group tearing out layers of fibre from a metal sheet. "This is asbestos," says Roy. Close to that lies a huge pile of boards of white asbestos fibre. The workers do not even have a rudimentary mask to protect themselves from the deadly fibre, I note.

Every year, thousands of tonnes of asbestos is taken out of the ships from here. But it is not clear how it is stored or disposed. Roy says that some of it is probably sent to an asbestos cement factory, located at Chittagong. But most of it either lies around or is sent to a common dumping ground. I ask for the location of the dump and whether we can visit it. But an office-bearer of bsba appears guarded and says that arranging a visit will not be easy.

"Most of the oil, transformer oil and lubricants recovered from the ships are sent to recycling units," says Ali. There are units that specialise in recycling various kinds of waste oil and lubricants. We move towards the workers' quarters located just outside the yard. Hakim takes us around showing us the facilities. There are rooms with bunk beds and separate rooms for praying and recreation. As we step outside, we find a sheet of white fibre. Asbestos.

"We live with it and nothing happens to us," he says as a matter of pride. He does not pay attention to my argument on how asbestos can affect his and his workers' health and leads us to his office where some contractors join us for an informal chat.

Busy traffic
The traffic as far as ships are concerned is definitely not small. There are ships--cargo vessels, bulk carriers, containers, passenger and cruise ships and tankers--from Europe, the us, Japan and all over the world that come to Chittagong. The yards employ more than 30,000 workers directly and between 150,000 and 250,000 indirectly.

Must call for long working hours? The initial response is 12 hours, which is then immediately altered to the politically correct eight hours. Most shifts last more than 12 hours, says Roy.

Heavy traffic also means revenue for the government. Every year, the government collects around us $13 million (Tk 900 crore as revenue from the shipbreaking industry by way of import duties (7.5 per cent) and yards tax (2.5 per cent). Bangladesh needs 8 million tonnes of building materials every year and 90 per cent of iron is supplied by the shipbreaking industry, says Shahin Muhammed Ali of the ngo Platform on Shipbreaking, Bangladesh.

Business sense
Bigger shipbreaking yards can handle 2-3 ships simultaneously. "Tankers of 7,000 to 8,000 dwt take about four to six months to break but cargo vessels take about eight to nine months," says Hakim. bsba says operations started here in 1965 and that till date not a single worker has died of asbestosis.

Down to EarthThe organisation does not see asbestos, pcbs or other such contaminants as a problem. For them, the most problematic are oil tankers and ships that contain gas because these can lead to explosions.

Besides, they are wary of foreigners educating them about occupational health. Bangladeshi and American conditions are different. People need jobs here, say traders. And there is finality in this statement.

Shipbreaking is an important business in this part of the world. When we say that all that we are asking for is prior decontamination of ships before they come for breaking here, for the occupational safety of workers, they only nod their heads in agreement.

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