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Alang, Chittagong and Gadani remain graveyards of migrant workers and ships

Written By Krishna on Thursday, December 27, 2012 | 4:27 AM

Nothing is likely to change for the migrant workers who dismantle ships on the South Asian beaches of Alang, Chittagong and Gadani in the new year.

Exact number of those die in the ship breaking industry in South Asia may never be known unless governments themselves compile it and publish it. The details from independent sources revealed that some  15 workers died in 2012 on or around end-of-life ships that were beached on Chittagong beach in Bangladesh for breaking. In the year 2012, more than two dozen workers died in the shipbreaking activities at India's Alang beach in Gujarat. These migrant casual workers live and work in a slave like condition.The rate of casualty in Pakistan's Gadani beach is equally grim. 

Alang beach is located on the Gulf of Khambat, 50 kilometres southeast of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. Approximately 10 kms. long sea front on the western coast of the Gulf of Cambay adjoining to Alang-Sosiya village is developed as ship recycling yard. As of January 2013, 120 ship-breaking plots are functional. At present, there are some 200-250 end of life ships on the Alang beach. Its raining ships in Alang.    

At Chittagong beach, the ship breaking takes place in the Fauzdarhat area along the 18 kilometres Sitakunda coastal strip, 20 kilometres north-west of Chittagong.

Gadani yard consists of 132 ship-breaking plots located across a 10 km long beachfront at Gadani, Pakistan, about 50 kilometres northwest of Karachi.

Along with India and Pakistan, Bangladesh remains a graveyards of the both ships and the migrant workers.

Every year, out of about 1,000 ocean-going ships sold for recycling, 70% end up on the beaches of South Asia, where they are cut by thousands of poorly trained and equipped workers using blow torches. Shipbreaking workers are exposed daily to toxic fumes, the risk of falling from the ship or being crushed by a falling plate.

In 2011, the government of Bangladesh closed the beaches of Chittagong for a few months following a series of deadly accidents. In July 2012, Supreme Court of India banned entry of end of life ships without prior decontamination in the country of export.

Underlining the current situation at Alang beach, ToxicsWatch Alliance wrote a piece High on hazard in the Financial Chronicle on Dec 21 2012. The article is reproduced below:   

Alang poses big threat to environment and health of local communities, migrant workers Alang witnessed yet another death on October 29. Hailing from nor­th India, the migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh in Bhavnagar’s Ste­rling Hospital succumbed to Gujarat’s Alang beach fire of October 6, in which several workers were burnt to death while dismantling a British end-of-life ship.

During 2001 to 2012, officially there have been 173 deaths without anyone being made accountable or liable. In 2011, 27 workers died in shipbreaking activities at Alang beach. Seven workers were burnt to death on October 6, officially, but sources tell us that the death toll is higher. These occupational deaths routinely happen. Nothing has been done to arrest these preventable deaths.

The chief minister of Gujarat says, “There are 52 islands along the coast of Gujarat. I want to make them tourist attractions of international standard.” But he has forgotten about the fate of Alang, which is the worst coastal beach in the world. The Gujarat government took the right step by shutting down the Sachana plots in November 2011, citing massive pollution as reason. In Sachana in Jamnagar district, some private agencies were carrying out shipbreaking work.

The closure order dated November 22, 2011, from the office of chief forest conservator read: “The shipbreaking is termed illegal because this breaking activity is going on in the water of Marine National Park….” The order said, “Because of shipbreaking, harmful objects like arsenic, mercury, asbestos, oil, etc, could harm marine life in the long time. This leads to complex problems for protecting and conserving the marine national park and marine sanctuary.” I submit that these observations are quite relevant for the shipbreaking operations in Alang as well, but the government has ignored the similarity between the two.

The UN special rapporteur’s report based on his visit to Alang beach reads: “…in India, ships are dismantled on beaches, a method commonly referred to as ‘beaching’. This method of ship dismantling fails to comply with generally-accepted norms and standards on environmental protection. Although very little work has been carried out to assess its environmental impact, the dismantling of ships on sandy beaches without any containment other than the hull of the ship itself appears to have caused high levels of contamination of soil, air, and marine and freshwater resources in many South Asian countries, and to have adversely affected the livelihood of local communities surrounding the shipbreaking facilities, which often rely on agriculture and fishing for their subsistence.”

The UN special rapporteur has recommended an independent study to be carried out to assess the actual and potential adverse effects caused by the discharge of hazardous substances and materials into the natural environment. “Such a study should also assess the steps that need to be taken for the gradual phasing out of ‘beaching’ in favour of more environmentally-friendly methods of shipbreaking.”

It has been almost three years, but nothing has been done to make Alang beach a tourist attraction of international standard. Some 6,000 end-of-life ships were permitted in the past 30 years ignoring naval intelligence reports underlining threat to Alang’s coastal environment.

The government has failed to ensure that the guilty officials and shipbreakers are made accountable. In the context of the recent deaths, if the government is sensitive, it would ensure that no deaths happen in future by reopening the old cases of occupational deaths on the Alang beach to set matters right. Those plots, which are more accident prone than mines, must be closed with immediate effect. The migrant workers deserve both medical and legal remedy besides just compensation.

The recent inspection by the Supreme Court-constituted interministerial committee (IMC) on shipbreaking, led by E K Bharat Bhushan, additional secretary, steel ministry, took note of the non-existent environmental and occupational health infrastructure, for the umpteenth time since 2004. It is sad that recommendations of IMC from 2004 to 2012 onwards have not been implemented in breaking yards.

After each accident and death of workers, an inquiry is ordered, but their report remains classified and no action has been taken. All migrant workers who became victims in the fire of October 6 in Plot No 82 on Alang beach belonged to UP. It is not clear whether IMC team inquired about the compensation given to these workers. Only a high-level probe can bring out the names of the others who are dead, but whose whereabouts have not been disclosed so far.

As per the Supreme Court order, district collector of Bhavnagar has to ensure that dismantling takes place as per its directions. Sources have revealed that in disregard to the court’s order so far, the district collector has chosen not to be associated with the dismantling process. Such non-compliance is unpardonable, but appears routine.

At present, the migrant workers in Alang who face discrimination for being Hindi-speaking and are not covered under Employees’ State Insurance Corporation. Workers’ living and working condition remains bad.

The illegal shipment of hazardous waste “from industrialised countries is being shipped to less developed countries under the listed intention of recycling and reclamation,” is a serious problem which has been noted even by Interpol. According to Green Customs Initiative, national and international crime syndicates earn $20-30 billion annually from dumping of hazardous waste, smuggling proscribed hazardous materials. Clearly, environmental crime and escaping of decontamination cost by global shipping companies in collaboration with international recycling industry is a significant and increasingly lucrative business, but the government has turned a blind eye to it. It appears to be a case of aiding and abetting colonialism by dumping hazardous waste at the behest of shipping companies of imperial powers.

The UN report states, “Health facilities in Alang-Sosiya do not possess sufficient human, technical and financial resources to provide any treatment other than first aid for minor injuries. The nearest hospital equipped to deal with life-threatening conditions is in Bhavnagar, more than 50 km away. The Red Cross hospital in Alang, which the special rapporteur visited, can count on only four medical doctors and nine beds to provide health care not only to some 30,000 workers in the yards, but also to the neighbouring villages of Alang (which have a population of about 18,000 people) and Sosiya (4,000 people).” The regime of blind profit on this ecologically fragile beach illustrates how all efforts by the Supreme Court and UN agencies have been undermined with impunity.

The environmental and occupational health crisis due to the hazardous industrial activities on the beach, and huge dangers from the shipbreaking industry to local communities and the environment remain unaddressed.

In a related development, ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) expressed concern over the reported use of carcinogenic asbestos onboard aircraft-carrier warship INS Vikramaditya which was published on December 26, 2012 by Vinay Kumar, The Hindu, 'Fighting the fibrous hazard'- 

Even as the delivery of India’s second aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, has been pushed back towards the end of 2013 owing to repairs in the malfunctioning boiler section, activists and environmental advocacy groups have expressed concern over reported use of asbestos-based insulation in the warship.
Given the health hazards that asbestos poses and the fact that International Maritime Organisation (IMO), of which India is a member state since 1959, has banned installation of all types of asbestos-containing materials as of January 1, 2011, activists have expressed “shock and surprise” over India’s willingness to accept use of asbestos in the aircraft carrier’s insulation in the boiler section. 

Responding to a query on repeated delays in delivery of Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened as INS Vikramaditya, Admiral Joshi said on Navy Day on December 4 the decision was taken by the contractors who were refitting the old warship.

“The insulation inside the boilers had become misplaced. Initially, it (the insulation) had been kept asbestos free, which was a contractual stipulation. We had nothing to do with that decision. It was an internal decision of the supplier,” the Navy Chief said, adding that the Navy became aware of the asbestos issue only after the snag developed during high speed trials in the Barents Sea.

Admiral Joshi said that the boiler would be a sealed unit and the environmental degradation factor externally would be negligible. Sources familiar with the materials used in the warships said that use of asbestos would be negligible in INS Vikramaditya and the sealed boiler unit, containing other insulation material as well, would never come in contact with the outside atmosphere. Sources said that all shipyards the world over were familiar with the IMO guidelines and adequate safety measures were being taken by the shipbuilders.

Calling for making all buildings asbestos free in the country, Gopal Krishna, convener of Toxics Watch Alliance (TWA), an Indian advocacy initiative, recently wrote a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee, pointing out asbestos roofing was being used in the schools, offices, courts, hospitals and automobiles.
“Though India has banned mining of asbestos, its use has not been completely stopped. Chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos, is a fibrous substance which is mixed with cement to create a fire-retardant mixture that is applied to corrugated sheets and pipes,” Mr. Krishna said. Inhalation of chrysotile dust can cause lethal lung diseases.

Mr. Krishna said that there were multiple alternatives available to asbestos and several industries and countries that have banned it have managed to do without it. Realising the lethal-effects of asbestos, the railways have also started replacing its asbestos roofing at several railway stations, he pointed out.
The WHO has classified asbestos as a “carcinogen” which causes lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. “Instead of going about it in phases, India needs to completely ban mining, trade, manufacturing and use of all forms of asbestos-based products,” Mr. Krishna said.

Asbestos has been widely used in various types of naval ships, including warships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, frigates and submarines. Ships repaired or built in the pre-1970 period were more likely to contain the toxic substance. The glass-like asbestos fibres were a major ingredient in many components of the ship, from pipe insulation to gaskets, in engine and boiler rooms, mess halls, navigation rooms and even in sleeping quarters.

Today, the U.S. Navy and civilian shipbuilders are eliminating its use and repair workers are making efforts to eliminate asbestos-containing materials found on current or older vessels.

Scientific studies over the past three decades have proved the dangers involved during asbestos exposure. Pleural mesothelioma is the most common form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs when unprotected workers inhale the asbestos fibres; they pass through the lungs and get embedded in the pleural mesothelium, a wall of tissue surrounding the lungs.

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