The state’s forest and environment department has ordered immediate closure of the three-decade-old Sachana ship-breaking yard in Jamnagar, saying it is a part of the Marine National Sanctuary and poses threat to the aquatic flora and fauna there.
Following a meeting on November 22 which was presided over by state forest minister Mangu Patel, the principal secretary of the forest and environment department sent a notice to his counterpart in the ports department.
According to the notice, ship-breaking activity at Sachana port, which ensures an annual turnover of Rs 200 crore for the Gujarat Maritime Board and employs over 5,000 skilled and unskilled labourers, is illegal and harms Marine National Sanctuary spread over 456 square km in Gulf of Kutch near Jamnagar. The release of arsenic, mercury, asbestos and oil pose threat to aquatic fauna and flora, the notice says.
This ship-breaking yard was set up in 1978.
The notice further mentions that this activity needs a permission from Supreme Court and that the GMB should make refunds to those who recently took plots on lease as the area is part of sanctuary. The notice has ordered immediate shutdown of the yard or else GMB officials will be held responsible.
The Marine National Sanctuary is home to octopus, dolphins, jelly, star fish and rare corals.
The forest department has done no survey or reasearch so far to find out the scale of damage to ecology in all these years.
While GMB Chairman B K Sinha, to whom notice has been served, and vice-chairman Pankaj Kumar, did not respond to several calls by The Indian Express, other officials expressed their anger over terming an activity illegal 30 years later.
Though notice was served on November 22, the yard is yet to shut down, with port officer G G Pande saying he is yet to receive a copy of the notice.
Pande said of the total 18 breaking plots, 15 are operational at Sachana, which serves as a secondary breaking yard to Alang.
Sachana is the final destination for smaller ships weighing up to 5,000 tonnes and are too small to be dismantled at Asia’s biggest shipping yard at Alang in Bhavnagar district.
“The notice has been suddenly served. It is not possible to shut down an activity, which has been going on for 30 years now,” said a top official from GMB. “The matter is being referred to Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s office as he holds the port portfolio.”
At the heart of the controversy is the tussle between two departments since the settlement procedure was conducted by the revenue department during 1982 to 1998 following formation of Maine National Park and Sanctuary in 1980.
Until 1980, the area was under the port authorities and at time of formation of Marine National Sanctuary, it went to forest and environment department. To settle land issues related to this huge area of Marine National Sanctuary, the revenue department conducted a settlement survey, which began in 1982. Some 56 individual applicants, who owned salt pans, made their claim, but the GMB never made any claim on this land.
The state government, based on the settlement survey, declared disputed land as part of Marine National Sanctuary in 1992. The forest and environment officials say that since then, they have been communicating with the GMB to stop ship-breaking activity and vacate the land.
“All these years, we have been asking the GMB to vacate the land,” said Jamnagar Chief Conservator of Forest Ravidutt Kamboj.
What is more, China is now building modern graving dock facilities for recycling steel from very large crude carriers and ultra-large crude carriers near Shanghai, according to an international maritime report.
These facilities are being built in association with some major shipping and other companies (including The Peninsular & Orient Steam Navigation Company and British Petroleum), so guaranteeing a steady supply of ships for breaking.
Alang has at present 178 ship-breaking plots where more than 2.5 million tonnes of material are dismantled round the year.
"But since last two months, there has been a significant decrease in the number of ships anchoring here," says a ship breaker.
During 2002, on an average 28 ships a month anchored at Alang for breaking. The figure dropped to 21 ships this August, 23 during September, 18 during October and 15 so far in November. According to breakers, the December figure may be lower than that of November.
The member of the yard says that Alang's ship-breaking yard has to be decongested, that ship handling has to be 100 per cent mechanised (ships are currently dragged inside the yard and the steel cut manually), that the sea in the vicinity of the yard has to be regularly cleaned and that ship breakers have to switch from using oxygen and LPG cylinders to break ships (one main cause of the explosions and accidents that occur at Alang) to electric cutters, used at Chinese ship-breaking yards.
Alang is important for several reasons. The ships that are broken there provide around four million tonnes of steel for the Indian market.
Secondly, it provides employment to over 45,000 people directly and over five lakh people in the state and outside indirectly.
Thirdly, the state government levies an 8 per cent sales tax on steel plates and iron sheets and so earns roughly Rs 3,500 crore (Rs 35 billion) a year in tax revenue from Alang.
Grouses a ship breaker: "The state government earns a huge amount of money as revenue from this industry but does not bother to provide anything in return. ''
The ship-yard lacks proper infrastructure, yard members complain. The Gujarat Maritime Board, which is responsible for looking after the Alang ship-breaking yard, has been headless for the last few months.
The last Chief Executive Officer, Girish Murmu, was relieved about six months after he took charge and posted to another government department.
C L Meena, a senior IAS officer posted at another department, currently looks after GMB but hardly finds time to come down to the GMB office in Gandhinagar as he's also in charge of another department.
What is more, safety is an issue at Alang. Some 16 people, including three workers, were killed this year at the yard.
A recent report by the Vadodara-based unit of the People's Unit for Civil Liberties said that the state government has not yet considered the ship-breaking business an industry.
This should be done at the earliest and it should be brought under the Factories Act, to ensure the safety of labourers, the report said.
"Ship breaking can only be done after decontamination of the hazardous substance and a mandatory rule must be framed to compel the owners of the ship to clean their ships and ensure that tanks are gas free for hot work. With the prices of steel, the prime extract from the ship, varying on a day-to-day basis, ship breakers often flout norms to sell the scrap when prices go up. Sometime even ship-breaking guidelines are ignored and the interiors of the ship, which are normally broken down at the end of the operation, are dismantled earlier as there is good market for these products," the PUCL report by Dwwarikanath Rath, a PUCL member and social worker, said.
A member of the GMB, however, says that Alang is now going to get a major facelift as the board has decided to provide treatment, storage and disposal facilities and that these will play a pivotal role in minimising the pollution from the hazardous materials at Alang.
"We thought that it is very important to start by identifying the problem before rushing around looking for a solution. In view of this GMB has decided to commission a detailed waste management plan at Alang," the GMB member says.
GMB has procured land for creating infrastructure for waste management through proper environment impact assessment studies in conformity with Indian environmental legislation, he adds. GMB is planning major infrastructure development, including a hazardous waste management project.
A Rs 12 crore (Rs 120 million) jetty for boarding is to be constructed at the ship-breaking yard. This includes a two-lane approach road, a platform for a backup area and a piled jetty with bollards and a fendering system.
"While countries like China may have the advantages of a fairly large volume of domestic demand for shipbuilding, India can look for its advantages in terms of labour costs, which are quite competitive and compare well with those obtained in other major shipbuilding countries," says Shreyas Pandya, president of the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Even so, the dragon won't go away. So chief minister Narendra Modi, in whose bailiwick Alang falls, would do well to cock an eye at the Chinese threat and push for an upgrading of Alang's facilities.