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Shipbreakers scar Bangladesh shoreline

THE LAND along the sea beach in the south-eastern coastal Bangladeshi town of Sitakunda was once covered by trees and greenery.

Now all that can be seen is a vast sandy stretch littered with metal scrap from ships that are being taken apart by hundreds of men and children. In the past three decades, this place, some 30 km to the north-east of the big port of Chittagong, has become one of the world's largest ship-breaking centres. Some 70 to 80 big ships are dismantled every year in 55 separate places along the 29-km long sea shore. But it is also one of the most exploitative working places in the world, rights groups say. Environmental activists say the ship-breaking industry is exposing workers to serious health hazards, besides polluting the coastal ecosystem.

From dawn to dusk, thousands of workers, many of them as young as 10 years old, are said to work in abject conditions. The workers are exposed to physical injury from accidents. Many have died. The entire area is strewn with broken glass, steel spikes, sharp- edged iron sheets and piles of metal scrap. Workers can be seen carrying heavy iron sheets on their shoulders. According to rights groups, at least 18 to 20 workers are injured every day, yet no medical facilities are provided by the employers. Eighteen workers died in two explosions in may and June in an oil tanker they were dismantling. The unofficial death toll was said to be at least 40.

Rights groups allege that the employers hide the bodies of those killed in accidents to avoid paying compensation. In the few cases when compensation was paid, it was a mere $ 200 to 300, they say.

According to some government officials who did not want to be identified, about 400 workers have been killed in accidents at the site in the last 21 years. About 3,000 persons have been injured during this period. Many of the injured workers were seriously disabled, going blind or losing a limb, following explosions on the ships. The injured workers are usually sacked without being given any compensation, rights groups allege. In most cases, the mishaps have been caused by explosions due to gas and oil residues in the ships.

Many of the ships are old oil tankers and the blasts are caused when workers attempt to cut open such ships with flame torches. Some of the workers told a team of visiting journalists that they toiled for 10 to 12 hours every day. Adult workers are paid two dollars a day, while children are paid about 60 cents, they said.

The Bangladesh environmental lawyers association (Bela) has served legal notices on the Ministry of Environment and other related government departments for not enforcing basic health and environmental safeguards in Sitakunda. ``The nation has observed with great shock and dismay that the concerned statutory bodies showed negligence, leniency and inaction in fulfilling their legal obligations,'' said a Bela statement.

The international environmental group, Greenpeace has also accused the Bangladeshi government of negligence in protecting ship-breaking industry workers. ``Foreign ship owners and Bangladeshi ship breakers are party to the crime of sacrificing the lives of workers for their personal profits,'' said Greenpeace Activist Mr. Nityanand Jayaraman.

Activists say the export of ships as scrap to Bangladesh without removing hazardous substances, is equal to waste dumping by rich nations in poor nations. Environmental scientist Mr. Yusuf Sharif Ahmed Khan blames the Bangladesh government for not regulating the import of old ships for scrapping. In the 1990s, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have emerged as the main centres of ship- breaking. The industry generates more than $ 500 million annually in Bangladesh, with the government earning $ 90 million annually in revenue from ship breakers.

``The Government will have to apply the `polluter pays' principle and ensure that ship owners and operators are held financially liable for the safety of the workers,'' said Mr. Khan.


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