Recycling the World's Once-Mighty Ships

At India's Alang ship-breaking yard, workers scurry like ants over vessels, tearing out anything of value as scrap.

A midsummer moon rises over the Gulf of Cambay, spraying the tar-like surface of sea with streams of blue silver. Pirates in Arab dhows once patrolled these warm and shallow waters. Today they attract a different breed of plunderer.

Despite the cool lunar light, the evening air here is as hot as the breath of a blast furnace. Blocking out the stars are the awesome hulks of oil tankers, cruise liners, aircraft carriers, ferries, and fishing boats, their ghostly shapes illuminated by the glare of gas welders and arc lights.

This is Alang, the world's largest ship-breaking yard, the final resting place for the Titanics of today, where men, not icebergs, rip through hulls with little more than a blow torch and a crowbar. Every year hundreds of vessels are rammed ashore here to be dismembered by thousands of laborers who clamber over the rusty hulks like ants picking at giant carcasses in some apocryphal abattoir. At the peak of its activity in 1997, Alang scrapped 348 ships, nearly one a day.

By the time these laborers have finished their job, every nut and bolt, each shred of wiring, and every single hinge will have been sold and recycled. Earning about 60 to 100 rupees ($1.50 to $2.50) a day, these are among India's most highly paid unskilled workers.

But then again this is one of the world's most-hazardous work sites. Last year as many as 40 laborers died when a welder's spark caused an oil tanker to explode. In January, 21 died when a leaking gas cylinder burst.

There are no unions, limited medical facilities for the men who sweat and toil from 6 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night, and just one fire engine to meet any emergencies. Environmental groups like the Basel Action Network and Greenpeace claim that industrialized countries take advantage of slack regulations and send ships laden with toxic wastes to Alang for breaking, adding to the risks for the workers. "Alang's boom is fueled by blood, the blood of 40,000 wretchedly poor men with crushed fingers, broken limbs, severe burns, and little hope in their hearts," says social activist Praful Bidwai in New Delhi.

Local authorities deny the charges, although they acknowledge problems.

"If things were so bad, why would workers keep coming back to Alang again and again," says Nitin Kanakia, who owns a ship-breaking business here. "If the wages were less than the cost of living, no worker would enter the ship-breaking yard at all."

No one knows Alang better than Munilal. The muqadam, or foreman, has been breaking ships since he was a boy, first in Bombay and then in Alang when the yard was started in the early 1980s. He has worked his way to the top of ship-breaking's cruel and competitive caste hierarchy.

Standing in the hull of the bulk carrier the MV Magnum, Munilal looks no match for the task ahead. His leather-like skin and oil-stained clothes blend with the burnt orange of the cavernous hold. Although he can barely read or write, he knows from looking at a ship's plans where to start cutting through the one-inch-thick steel so that in three months there will be nothing left of a ship that took a high-tech Japanese shipyard three years to construct.

"I can't remember how many ships I've broken up, maybe 40. I always start by spending a couple of days walking all over the ship checking how its been built," says the soft-spoken bachelor, who like many fellow workers came here from impoverished northern India.

Munilal is one of half-a-dozen muqadams employed at Mr. Kanakia's ship-breaking plots. Like most of the 180-odd plots in Alang, it is just 100 feet wide and 500 feet long. At one end lies the 90-foot-high, 700-foot-long MV Magnun. Its bow, already sliced off, is being cut into sheets by workers, who then load them by hand onto waiting trucks.

Buying ships for breaking is a risky business. The ship breakers have to take the word of brokers to ascertain what condition the vessel is in. The quality of steel varies greatly, as does the difficulty of dismantling them.

"Avoid Russian fishing vessels because of all the insulation you have to get out and be wary of warships because the steel may not be suitable for rerolling," Kanakia says.

The plot next to Kanakia's is owned by Subodh Chowdhury, who sits surrounded by the contents of the last ship he beached: bottles of soy sauce, salt and pepper shakers, telephones, typewriters, old lifeboats, and tarpaulins.

"You see, all this talk about toxic wastes is rubbish," Mr. Chowdhury says. "Here everything is recycled: The oil, the plastics, the asbestos, everything has a value. So by the time we have finished, there is nothing left to pollute the environment here."

For the moment, however, the ship breakers have more than toxic waste on their minds. Most complain that the days of making good money are over.

"There are too many plots here now, industry has slowed down, and currency fluctuations are eating into our profits," Kanakia laments. "Previously it was very profitable. Now it's a matter of a few dollars here and there."

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