Two dead and many questions

Fires at Alang shipbreaking yard are frequent, accidents inevitable

By Rajil Menon
Published: Friday 30 April 2010

imageOn april 1, an explosion and thick smoke interrupted shipbreaking at Alang on Gujarat’s coast. The source was a junked ship that caught fire while labourers were dismantling it.

Deendayal Paswan, a 45-year-old labourer from Uttar Pradesh, was burnt to death and three others sustained severe burns in the fire that broke out in the afternoon. A second victim died in hospital. Workers in the area claimed the death toll is six.

Junk ships or death chambers?

Inquiries revealed the ship— M T Devsi —was a tanker that docked at Alang on February 15.
It was stationed on plot number 27, owned by Budha Patel’s Shantanami Enterprise. The probable cause of the fire was the oil stored in the ship. P D Vyas, chief fire officer at Alang, admitted the labourers were cutting the ventilators of the ship and there was oil in its storage tank.

B M Singh, the safety officer for plot 5 said such accidents are frequent. “Ships have different layers and chambers, locally called gallas. Authorities should check all the gallas for inflammable materials before scrapping begins. But this rule is rarely followed,” said Singh. Workers sit on the gallas and dismantle the ship; even a spark from their cutters is enough to start a fire and cause an explosion, he added. The black smoke traps the workers who can’t see. Singh guessed this was what would have happened aboard M T Devsi.

Alang’s 173 plots directly employs 30,000 workers. It is the largest ship-recycling yard in the world but is more famous for frequent fire accidents (see box). “Workers have a common saying: if you want to die, come to Alang,” said a 28-year-old migrant labourer from Jharkhand.

Safety bypassed

Each plot is supposed to have a safety officer, appointed by plot owners with approval of the Gujarat Maritime Board (gmb) that manages the shipbreaking yard. Most of the time, the safety officer exists only on paper; the plot where M T Devsi was stationed did not have one, said a worker. “Even when there is a safety officer, his suggestions are not taken seriously,” another worker said.

The wImageorkers are hardly aware of the precautions they need to take. “Training is only for three days. Within this period, they are bombarded with information on fire safety, personal safety and equipment handling,” said Singh. Workers said they were aware of the accident risks, but had no choice. Working in a ship-breaking unit does not require any formal education or skills and a job is assured.

Environmentalists said the explosion in the M T Devsi is just the symptom of a deep rooted malaise. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (peso) under the Union commerce ministry is supposed to inspect each ship and certify that it has no inflammables aboard. “Clearly, this procedure was not followed in the case of M T Devsi. peso should be held criminally liable for the death of these workers,” said Gopal Krishna, an activist with the non-profit, Toxic Watch Alliance.

Workers said there is a nexus between officials and plot owners. “A ship is supposed to be checked by the state pollution control board and the gmb also. How is it that none of them spotted the oil in the ship?” asked Vidyadhar Rane, secretary of Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers’ Association, a union of 7,000 members.

Officials of gmb and pollution control board refused to comment. As many as 166 ships are currently docked at Alang for dismantling.

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