Ship Breaking in India: Environmental and Occupational Hazard

Debasish De

India is becoming a graveyard for the dying ships. And so it is, for the workers of the shipyards too. Ship breaking is also environmentalists’ nightmare. Toxic materials, most of which are highly hazardous, are dumped in the ship-breaking yards of India. The most tragic part of the story is the fate of the workers who are facing fatal occupational hazards. Not to forget, India is the one of the six surviving ship-breaking nations in the world, along with China, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan and Myanmar.

Clemenceau, the French flagship carrier coming to Alang Ship breaking yard in Gujarat has attracted world wide attention. It was decommissioned from service many years ago and was harboured in the Toulon military harbour for the last seven years like a mammoth ghost frame of steel weighing about 26,000 tonnes. This ship is full of asbestos (around 40-50 tonnes), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), TBT (tributyltin), lead, mercury and other toxic chemicals, which France and no other European country is willing to or able to scrap due to expensive environmental costs.

Then why do the Government of France sends it off to India to be broken in a scrap yard where impoverished workers are injured and die every day due to various occupational health hazards? Its not less an irony that an Indian company has bought the ship for breaking and the Union Government is also supporting it.

Asbestos, being a leading contributor to pollution is the main cause of the controversy. Though Crocidolite asbestos, one of the six kinds of naturally occurring aluminum fibers is banned in India, it can still be found in old insulation material and old ships that come from other countries for dismantling in India. But in the European Union, Chrysotile Asbestos has been classified as a Category-1 carcinogen. It has been responsible for over 2,00,000 deaths in the United States. A recent study shows in Western Europe alone, past asbestos exposure will cause a quarter of a million deaths from Mesothelioma (a cancer) over the next thirty-five years. The number of lung cancer deaths caused by asbestos is at least equal to the number of Mesothelioma deaths.

Migrant workers dismantle the ships with their bare hands. Almost one out of every three workers suffers from cancer making ship-breaking one of the deadliest industries in the world. Even their sleeping quarters are not free from danger. Many are also injured or killed by suffocation or explosion related mishaps. The saddest part is that the workers are mostly temporary and are not covered under any labour benefits.

Generally, ships are broken on the sea coast, by the river-mouth. Hazardous materials mix up with cesspool, which carries the pollutants to the river water as well as in the sea. The soil and water of the surrounding area becomes heavily contaminated threatening the marine eco-system. One can easily find the garbage dump outside the dock consists of metal scraps, wastes and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). The agricultural land and the health of the residents of adjoining villages also suffer heavily. Ballast water, which is used to maintain the balance of the ship while sailing, also pollutes the coastal area with oil, biocides and heavy metals. After 25-30 years ships end their sailing life. These ‘End of Life Vessels’ are sold and dismantled to recover the valuable steel. About 95% of the ship consists of steel. Annually, about 600-700 large sea-vessels are brought to Asian countries for breaking them into scrap. In 2001, the total number of vessels (608) sold for scrap totalled steel of 28 million dwt. This marks a yearly growth of nearly 25%, according to E.A. Gibson Shipbrokers. Also, a large chunk of India’s steel demand is met by this non-recognised industry.

On the other hand, the migrant labourers working in the ship breaking are not recognised by any labour laws. According to Dr. S K Dave of National Institute of Occupational Health Ahmedabad (NIOH), there is inadequate or no health infrastructure to look after the health related problems of these workers. Nor do we have a clear number of deaths due to occupational health hazards and asbestos related death of the workers. These workers could be saved by following some simple industrial safety measures like using gloves, gas-masks and similar protective gears.

Decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau has passed through the Suez Canal now and heading towards Alang yard. The Supreme Court has already barred it from entering Indian territorial waters until experts had determined whether it was carrying hazardous waste. It has already created a ripple among the media people, politicians and the environmentalists of the country. This is really tragic that we are importing the hazardous toxic materials to our country for making others pollution free. Generally, we Indians love to remain in slumber keeping the eye open and do not awake until there is a big jolt. This is high time to protest against this hazardous practice and to secure the life of thousands of poor workers and environment.

Author Note
The writer is a Consultant with the Centre for Rural Environment, Action, Training and Education (CREATE), New Delhi.