Amongst footloose workers

  • 14/03/2006

Amongst footloose workers I still remember the sharp chill that went down my spine when I first set my gaze upon Alang shipyard on a spring afternoon in 1996. As far as I could see from my elevation at the north end of the yard, there were nearly a hundred vessels, or what remained of them, being gently lapped by the rising tidal waters of the Gulf of Khambhat (formerly the Gulf of Cambay). The waters could rise and fall by as much as 12 meters in almost as many hours, I was informed, which was second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada. It was this tidal amplitude, along with a gently sloping flat rocky shoreline that prompted entrepreneurs, mostly based in Bombay (it was still not Mumbai), to snatch away a lucrative global business proposition from the shores of Taiwan.

What began as a small operation in the early "90s grew quickly to attract an estimated male workforce of 30 - 60,000 from eastern UP, Bihar and Orissa, on a seasonal basis depending upon the harvests (or lack of it). Able-bodied men earned a decent sum of Rs 2,000 - 2,500 (about US $ 500) per month, while those who could operate the crude, LPG-based cutting system earned almost double the amount. These were princely sums compared to what they could earn from the land back home, particularly during the lean periods in agriculture. They spend almost half of their earning on food, knowing that strong bodies translated into better income opportunities. But the other half that they could save meant a lot in terms of repairing that thatched roof, providing for medicines of an ailing parent or the marriage of a sibling back home.

But the downside of such income opportunities was also substantial. A dozen men shared each of the shacks (constructed crudely with the wooden planks dismantled from the ships), each furnished with six bunks and three clotheslines. While six men did a 12-hour shift in one of the 183 yards along the coast of Alang-Sosiya, the rest had the option to rest. The sea provided for toilet and bath, if needed. Food and sex were available for a price, but medical service, fire service and police services were conspicuous by their absence. Yet, these were badly needed. There were unconfirmed reports of 2 to 5 deaths due to accidents per week on an average. Most of these were either caused by a fall (the cutters needed to suspend themselves on ropes while big chunks of the hull were spliced) or by a fire (the cutting gadget often ignited the fuel chamber where the residual gas and petroleum sludge ignited).

Oddly, however, these had nothing to do with my maiden visit to Alang. I was there to address the environmental issues, that too with a twist. Apparently, environmental concerns were raised in the parliament and the Ministry of Steel had engaged MECON (its consulting establishment) to make an assessment. The State Government was naturally concerned because Alang ensured annual revenue of about Rs 250 crores (about US $ 60 million) to the State exchequer, which could rise further. The Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) - custodians for the Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yard - sought the assistance of another State agency - the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC).

As I, a young ecologist from GEC (fresh out of university research), and Mr Shah - the Chief Engineer of GMB (months away from his retirement) - walked along the coast of Alang on that spring afternoon in 1996, we could not but be overwhelmed with the enormity of the tasks that lay in front of us. He pointed out a carrier that caught fire in the high seas off Sri Lanka, a single-hulled hydrocarbon tanker and a peculiar closed vessel that was used as a prison off the coast of Siberia, among others, that were being dismantled with the help of gas-cutters and dragged with the help of ropes. A piece of history was being shredded every day!

Shah quickly explained that we had the mandate to do all that was required to comply with the environment protection laws and save the industry. Should we dredge out all the muck from the sea-bed? Should we pick up all the floating debris and ensure that no further debris is chucked into the sea? Should we plant trees? I had no immediate answer but I knew that our environmental laws - like most other laws - were woefully distanced from the realities on the ground and couldn"t care about other related aspects such as living and working conditions of the people there. These are dealt with - if at all - in other laws, which did not concern us really at this point of time.

With very little scientific literature on the matter, I did not have an idea of where to begin and what to look for, and therefore created separate research teams to study almost all conceivable angles including geography, sedimentary geo-chemistry, hydrology, water pollution, benthic fauna (including foraminifera) and micro-flora (including microbes that lived on hydrocarbons). The socio-economic studies focused on the resident population, the migrant workers and the entrepreneurs (including those in ancillary steel re-rolling mills and bottling plants) and their views on the living conditions, working conditions and general environment conditions.

The findings were astounding. Hydrocarbons were detected a meter below the water surface about a kilometre from the shores of Alang, roughly were the residual fuel was carelessly emptied before the vessel embarked upon its final lap to the beach. Heavy metals, released from the paints scraped from areas on the hull where the cutting edge of the gas flame would glow, were detected in the sediments and not in the waters. The geo-chemist told us that the sediment in this region was particularly good at binding heavy metals and hence immobilised much of it from the water while the rest got flushed quickly by the tidal waters. Dredging, therefore, was totally avoidable since a disturbed bottom could risk release of all those pollutants.

Few living creatures were adapted to withstand conditions of such high tidal amplitude and even these assemblages were found to be normal just a kilometre away from the ship-breaking zone both to the north and south. That is, unless they were physically trampled upon, the effects of pollution was not evident. The debris, however, would either float as eye-sores (assuming someone did visit the region as a tourist) or would fill up the trenches in the sea bed. On the other hand, as mentioned initially, the socio-economic studies were quite a revelation.

There were a couple of aspects, though, that we could not explore. A pilot had mentioned the possibilities of dumping nuclear wastes off the shores of Alang, more from an analysis of the laws and weaknesses in the system, I think, rather than from any real evidence. And second, quite a few workers were suspected to be AIDS infected. Since the health check up was voluntary and the HIV tests still quite basic, it was difficult to confirm.

When we sat down to synthesise our findings and make recommendations, we faced a strange dilemma. On the one hand, we were to highlight environmental problems that didn"t really exist and deal with technological options that didn"t really make sense. On the other hand, there were real issues related to living and working conditions that needed only a bit of regulation, management and investment on infrastructure, but that was definitely not the issue uppermost in the minds of policymakers at that point of time, both at the Central and State levels.

In consultation with our advisors like V Ramachandran - who described ship-breaking as a "footloose" industry - we decided to bite the bullet in favour of realism.

It was in the year 2000 that I again chanced upon Alang, this time on a separate project for the two gulfs in Gujarat. Our jeep drove down a wide metal road with streetlights that actually lit up when we were returning in the evening. We passed a fire-station, a police station, a post-office, a bank and a huge container for the supply of drinking water. A siren went off and thousands of workers stepped out from the yards, all with yellow helmets, boots and gloves. They worked to eight hour shifts now, and had basic protective gear. Casualties had dropped drastically, and so had drunkenness and petty street-fights.

The workers certainly looked more contended and purposeful. The junkyard looked more organised and even the sea looked clean. But business, I was told, was not really as booming as was being projected earlier. "Footloose" it was, I thought, and thanked God waste didn"t waste money on so-called "environment protection" measures.

The author was formerly Senior Ecologist of the Gujarat Ecology Commission, and is personally responsible for this piece.