A move by the EU Commission and the Supreme Court to get ship-breaking yards to create environment-friendly facilities may save Alang as it gasps for life
By Ramesh Menon
It is almost ironical that the throbbing Alang beach on the Bhavnagar coast in Gujarat, one of the biggest graveyards for decommissioned and aging ships, is seemingly on its deathbed. Tough international regulations that focus on clean methods to break up ships threaten the industry that is seen to be a serious polluter.
A couple of years ago, over 350 vessels used to be broken at the ship-breaking yard every year. It had a 10-kilometer coastline with ships in various stages—some almost broken and others in the process. It was a booming industry with a potential of nearly Rs 6,000 crore.
Thousands of laborers worked through smoke and dust with gas-powered blow torches and huge hammers, stripping every ship of its steel for months. Once the giant vessels were broken into bits and carried away for recycling to steel melting units, preparations were made for another ship to be beached for breaking. Over 7,000 ships have been broken down in the last 33 years. With lax environmental laws, India was a favorite destination to send ships from all over the world with decontaminated material for recycling. But, that may not be the case anymore.
For more than a year now, there has been a lull on the otherwise busy coastline that created a money-spinning industry. Today, there are hardly 80 ships for breaking and ship- breakers are no more laughing all the way to the bank. Many ship-breaking yards have been shut. The workforce has come down from 30,000 to 18,000. Those who remain wonder how long they will be there as uncertainty hangs in the air.
They are not the only ones grappling with questions about their future. It also includes scores of people who run ancillary industries that melt the scrapped steel. There are shops for over seven kilometers on both sides of the road in Alang that sell goods that have been salvaged from ships, like furniture, kitchenware, washing machines, fridges, mattresses, curtains and machinery parts like pumps that can be re-used. They too face a bleak future. Many of the 165 or so yards where ships are broken down are empty and many are on the verge of becoming so.
How is India going to lose out on its ship-breaking business? The European Union Commission is now looking at ways to get ship owners to send their vessels only to those ship-breaking yards that have modern recycling facilities, strict environment safeguards and which take good care of their workers. At the moment, Alang can’t stake claim to any of these.
Four years ago, the Supreme Court prohibited ships coming for ship-breaking from numerous well-off OECD countries from entering India’s territorial waters if they had not removed hazardous waste that the Basel Convention had specified. It wanted hazardous material within the ship to be first removed and destroyed before it was sent for ship-breaking to India. But ships with poisonous material continue to beach at Alang for breaking.
For many years now, the ship-breaking yard at Alang has been tangled in numerous allegations about how it does not follow environmental norms and has done a lot of ecological damage. Greenpeace has been in the forefront of this campaign and has even prevented toxic ships like French aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau from being broken down in Alang as it had a huge amount of asbestos. Human right activists have often highlighted the high number of deaths at Alang due to accidents and scores of other cases of serious injuries. The workers are mainly from helpless impoverished families from Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.
The worrisome thing is that foreign ship owners, in collusion with Indian ship-breakers, are trying to outwit the Basel Convention. There is a legal obligation for countries not to send contaminated ships for ship-breaking, but they are doing just that. This is because developed countries do not want to pollute and endanger the lives of their citizens with poisonous carcinogenic material that is often found in ships, like asbestos, a material that is banned in 50 countries. A few weeks ago, a Danish ship was in the news for beaching at Alang for ship-breaking. Activists say that it violated international laws by doing so and took advantage of the lax regulations in India.
What is disheartening is that India’s Ship-Breaking Code that was formulated after the Supreme Court directives has not achieved the desired results. A study by the National Human Rights Commission on Alang said that conditions have not improved. There has been poor enforcement of safety regulations. As there have been over 470 confirmed deaths in the ship-breaking yards from 1983 to 2013, emergency facilities to treat the injured should have been established. Workers have to be taken 50 km to Bhavnagar for treatment because there are grossly inadequate health facilities to treat the injured. Since 1983, over 400 fires have broken out at Alang. It is crying out for emergency facilities. But the focus has been on business and not on worker welfare and rights. Housing and sanitation have been ignored and so have education facilities for the workers’ children.
The incentive for ship owners to sell their decommissioned vessels to South Asian ship-breakers is huge as their lenient rules for disposing of asbestos and other forms of waste make profits higher. That was one of the reasons for Alang’s booming business.
The European Commission now wants to neutralize the advantage which countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have had and are pushing for ship owners to recycle only at clean, approved facilities that have modern methods. These new EU rules require EU-registered ships to be recycled only at sustainable facilities. Ship-breakers in India say that they will have to invest heavily in creating dry docks for ship-breaking, with huge cranes and lifting devices.
The new international strictures will ensure that the erstwhile lucrative business will move to countries like China and Turkey which are ready to invest in building modern ship-breaking facilities that cater to the new norms. While environmental activists and NGOs would want Alang shut down, the Gujarat government and the centre would rather not do it as it is a money-spinner. But with tough international regulations and concerns of environmental damage, ship-breakers in Alang will have to invest in creating modern, clean facilities and also look after their workers. This will cut into their profits but if the ship-breaking yard is to survive, this is the only way out.
Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Environment and Maritime Affairs, said that the shameful practice of European ships being dismantled on beaches will end with the introduction of the new law that will ensure that EU-registered ships are scrapped only at sustainable facilities with proven safeguards for the environment and workers. These tough laws have come as the industry wants to now be seen as a clean one and not as one of the most polluting ones which rapidly destroys marine ecology.
Internationally, the pressure on dirty recycling of aging ships has increased with environmentalists demanding that only the ones that have clean methods that pollute minimally should be allowed. Ship-breakers say that if they bring in facilities that are being demanded by the EU Commission, profits will collapse as it will be very expensive to clean up the industry and production capacity would fall by around 30 percent.
In 1983, the then Gujarat finance minister Sanat Mehta had taken this writer to Alang to watch the first ship that had come to be broken on a pristine beach. “Give me 10 years,” he had said, “I will turn this into one of the largest ship-breaking yards of the world.” He did make good on his promise. But Mehta, who passed away over a year ago, would have been disappointed to see the environmental damage that Alang caused.
Alang has a lot of promise but both the center and the state will have to step in to rescue it by respecting both Indian and international law and making it a destination for out-of-date ships.
Chintan Kalthia, owner of RL Kalthia Ship Breaking Private Limited, which is one of the yards that has modernized, told India Legal: “There is hope as the Japanese government is now planning to start investing heavily in improving facilities at Alang. Japan sees it as worthwhile to invest in an industry like this. It is a fact that we have to make this a clean industry and ensure that our workers have safe conditions to live and work in. We have no choice but to clean up if we have to survive in the international market. If we have managed to ensure environmentally cleaner cars, why cannot we have ship-breaking yards that are environment-friendly?”
Japan has pledged to give a loan of Rs 18 crore ($180 million) to the ship-breaking industry in Alang to upgrade 70 yards. The funds would be provided by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the loan has to be paid back over 40 years. The money will be used to create a pre-treatment facility for the removal and treatment of hazardous materials from ships before breaking and expanding the current disposal facilities. Japan is also trying to get India to ratify the Hong Kong Convention so that foreign ships can be allowed to come to India to be broken down.
The upgrades that will be undertaken through the loan include the construction of a pre-treatment facility for the removal and treatment of hazardous materials from vessels and the expansion of the facility’s current treatment storage disposal facility to enable 25 tons of waste to be incinerated daily.
In early July, a Japanese team was in Alang for one of its numerous inspections. A draft project plan of the Japan government to bring about a turnaround in Alang is expected to be ready by September this year.
Japan offered its expertise in upgrading the ship recycling industry in India after a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Japan when this was discussed. India accounts for nearly 30 percent of the global ship recycling industry.
There is a new flicker of hope now in Alang with this development as Japan’s technological help can aid in the decontamination of ships after they are beached and also create procedures and conditions for worker safety and environment protection.
—With inputs from Mishika Chowdhary