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Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - II: Alang: Death zone

By Shailendra Yashwant

In the first of a new series that takes readers to various toxic hotspots across the subcontinent, photo-journalist Shailendra Yashwant travels to Alang in Gujarat, where 400 ships come every year to die. Here, unshod and completely unprotected workers handle a deadly cocktail of heavy metals and toxic substances released in the course of ship-breaking, in blatant contravention of the Basel Convention, which restricts all signatory nations from trading in hazardous waste.

It's exactly the kind of terrain that all photographers hate. Weighed under my equipment, two cameras delicately balanced around my neck and shoulders, my left foot went squishing two feet deep into the muck. I gently pulled it out to discover that it had returned without my shoe. Nervously I discarded the other and joined thousands of unshod workers trudging along an industrial beach, littered with carcasses of old ships, being stripped of every recyclable part, heart and soul.

I was at Alang, the world's largest ship-breaking facility, situated on the southern coast of Gujarat in India. This is where ships come to die. It's difficult to describe this place of death. A ten-kilometre coastal strip, divided in yards in the inter-tidal zone of about 200 metres each, and at every yard there were one or two ships in various stages of dismantling. Workers were busy stripping, cutting, breaking, torching and slicing the massive vessels -- container ships, warships, cattle carriers, tankers -- in a mayhem of sound and light as torch-cutters threw up showers of sparks.

I was with a team of Greenpeace activists who had managed to bullshit their way into the ship-breaking yard posing as 'ship-lovers' from a non-existent club in Germany, tracing old European ships. The abundance of white skin and near-perfect preparation was too much for Shantibhai, the yard-owner, and he warily let us in.

Ship-breakers hate cameras. The working conditions in the yards are abysmal and ship-breakers can ill-afford a media sting by a bunch of bleeding hearts. We were told to refrain from taking pictures of the labourers -- the unshod, unprotected red eyes, straining muscles and sinews that ducked the deadly falling parts as they switched between LPG and oxygen cutting gear.

It was while walking towards the beached ship DC that I lost my shoe. Thus unshod, I sloshed my way to the bottom of the ship, from where I had to climb about seven floors on a hanging rickety wire-mesh ladder to access the deck.

I was risking my life so recklessly because my European friends were here to expose the blatant flouting of an international agreement, the Basel Convention, which restricts all signatory nations from trading in hazardous waste. And I was here to find out how a ship-for-scrap is hazardous waste in disguise and was being unscrupulously dumped on Indian shores by European nations, signatory to the international law.

As I climbed up the precarious ladder, I passed gaping holes in the sides of the ship, the innards of which were an awesome beehive of dismantling activity. Finally I reached the deck, where men were hauling away various parts of the ship with winches and chains. My friends, although not from a real 'ship-lover's club' knew their ships very well.

We headed for the 'bridge', the command centre of the ship when it sailed, to establish the identity of the ship-builder, tonnage, the year-of-make, flags it has flown and the port of origin. The skeleton crew, which had brought her here on her final journey, had scribbled melancholic graffiti all over the bridge.

Soon we spread out on the gargantuan vessel as my friends brought out heavy-duty knives and pliers and began exposing asbestos cladding on wires, scraping paint to confirm TBT presence, tipping barrels of waste oil from the engine room and all the other deadly stuff that is present by the tonne on a ship. After the cloak-and-dagger sample collection exercise, we joined the workers in the lower decks. Obviously no one had told them about the deadly lung disease called 'asbestosis' as they toiled away in subhuman conditions without basic protection such as hard-hats, glasses, masks, gloves, nonchalantly stripping away asbestos with their bare hands.

The Greenpeace investigation confirmed that shipyard workers are exposed to a deadly cocktail of toxic substances released in the course of ship-breaking. Heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium chromium and copper; asbestos, dangerous levels of organotins, and cancer-causing poly-aromatic hydro-carbons (PAHs), contaminate the workplace. The levels of pollutants such as organotins and PAHs in the soil and sediment in and around the yards are high enough to warrant the classification of these soils and sediment as hazardous wastes. Many of the poisons found will end up in the bodies of the workers and remain in the local environment for a very long time.

Each ship carries huge quantities of chemical poisons; most of it is integral to the basic structure of the ship. By exposing the presence of these toxic chemicals on board all European vessels, Greenpeace was pushing for a global regime on the de-contamination of ships-for-scrap in the source country. Considering that the main ship-breaking nations are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, this makes complete sense. All the ship-scrapping countries have a terrible track-record of environmental and health safety guidelines and protocols. I was glad that Greenpeace was putting the onus of cleaning up on the developed world.

After thanking our bewildered host, we took off to witness a 'beaching operation', the parking of a ship on the beach for dismantling. Using a combination of high tide, ship's motors and the unique terrain in the sub-tidal zone of Alang, a massive container ship quietly and smoothly slipped into the yard. It was an amazing sight to witness and the few tears shed by observers were completely deserved. God knows how many times this ship had sailed around the world, the storms she had braved, the cargo and crew she had carried, the adventures she had had, the lives she had lived, now reduced to junk.

On the outskirts of the ship-breaking yard is a thriving second-hand market of goods stripped off the ships. Mirrors, electrical fittings, beds, chairs, tables, clocks, pipes, tubes, candelabras, torches, ropes, inflatables, fire-extinguishers, spoons, plates, bowls, doors, windows, curtains, tablecloths, kitchen gadgets and a variety of electronic, electrical, mechanical machines; the second-hand goods on sale here are mind-boggling.

Ship-breaking is a hugely profitable exercise. Half the world's ocean-going fleet ends up in Alang -- approximately one vessel arriving per day. Depending on their size and the current price of steel the ships are sold for up to several million dollars each. Besides Alang where over 400 ships arrive every year for scrapping, the congested ship-breaking yard at Daarukhana in Mumbai gets over 100 large and medium-sized ships. Countries like Bangladesh meet more than half of their demand for steel from the ship-breaking industry alone.

It's a paradox then that the ship-breaking industry and the Maritime Board are so lackadaisical about implementing national and international regulations that will help the industry further. A Supreme Court notification on hazardous waste imports expressly states that hazardous waste for recycling be rid of all toxic content before being imported. The onus therefore lies on the selling country.

We were ready to leave for Bhavnagar, the closest city and the headquarters of the ship-breaking operations. Trucks laden with steel on their way to rolling mills and others laden with assorted salvaged items, crowded the highway. We stopped at one of the many yards to look at salvageable goodies. I did like a piano, and it was well within my budget considering it was going for one-tenth or less of its original price, but unfortunately I had no time to organise transport for the beautiful but huge piano.

Outside one of the yards we saw hundreds of broken toilet commodes. On enquiring, we discovered that there was no market for them as Indians were very particular about their 'toilet habits' and used toilet seats were considered contaminated. The irony was too much to contemplate as we joined the long line of trucks to Bhavnagar.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)