SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Heavy metal beach

OFF-TRACK

Final voyage for HMS Vengeance. The job of breaking this 60-year-old ship will take 10 months.

Final voyage for HMS Vengeance. The job of breaking this 60-year-old ship will take 10 months.  

AS the pilot in the small turboprop announces our "initial descent" into Bhavnagar, my friend at the window points, out to the left of the plane. There as we initially descend, through the haze and a sudden gap in the clouds, we see ships. A seashore defined by ships. Like toys in a line, these once-regal roamers of the sea lie, stretching into the distance. And we know this nearly surreal sight has to be Alang.

In seconds, the scene has vanished back into the haze. Gone, but not forgotten. Only hours later, we are on that shore. And the view from the ground is, if possible, even more surreal.

The long beach at Alang slopes gradually out to sea, so the low tide goes out very far. No palm trees, but otherwise you can imagine it as a pleasant holiday spot — waves, sand, sun. But not now. Now, the beach is divided into "plots": over 160, though only about 35 are occupied. By ships. Thirty-five ships on this beach make a spectacle like nothing you've seen before. Huge vessels, driven and pulled up onto the sand, then an army of workers takes over. They blowtorch, hammer, pull and break the ships down. For Alang is Asia's largest shipbreaking yard.

There on the beach, in front of the hulks, lies the debris of this mind-numbing operation. Sheets of thick steel, electrical fittings, propellers, motors and turbines, asbestos, belts, bunk beds, light bulbs, wire mesh, mirrors, even a drum but no drumsticks. Snaking out to the ship are long, heavy chains, sometimes buried in the sand. Lying in coils, or in long strands underfoot, are thinner cables and the pipes that carry gas and oxygen to blowtorches; gas and oxygen cylinders also lie around. I can see how the cables, used to help winch the ship ashore, have actually gouged through the metal.

And the men responsible for this cornucopia: grimy clothes and gumboots, some in goggles, all in yellow hardhats. Some hammering, some carrying, some tinkering, some picking apart. Like ants, some appear high on the ship, every now and then lowering a steel cabinet or other heavy object to the sand. All over the plot are men using blowtorches to cut through sheet-metal. If you could get a kite's-eye view of this place, dotting the scene would be these intense spots of orange or blue flame, showering sparks about.

The smell is pungent, overpowering, not pleasant at all. Is it the metal itself, melting? Or is it the paint, burning? I don't know, but either way, it sears my nostrils. How do these workers bear it at close quarters, hour after acrid hour?

In one plot, blowtorching isn't enough. They are working on an old British aircraft carrier. Metal panels on warships are not just welded together, but also riveted: the greater strength that war demands, of course. To cut up these panels, the rivets must be removed as well. This turns out to be a two-man operation. Squatting, one holds a hefty pointed chisel on a rivet. The other man wields a long hammer. Several lusty blows and the rivet shoots free. On to the next one. HMS something-or-the-other has been here for three months, and the men here expect it will have vanished under their hands in another six.

Suddenly, it rains. Grey, heavy, driving monsoon downpour, but it doesn't slow down the hands.

A siren announces the 10 a.m. tea break. Dark men in uniformly brown clothes stream past me and out. A foreman pats each down perfunctorily — what would they steal from this charnel-house, I wonder — before they disappear into shacks serving tea and biscuits across the road, above the beach. Later and with a sort of urgent loquaciousness, the same foreman, I'll call him Pritam, talks about the business.

They are all from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa, he says. No locals. (Our Bhavnagar taxi driver says Gujaratis would never do this kind of work). You know how it is in Bihar, says Pritam (he himself left that state in 1990 to come to Alang). Nothing works there, and that man — Pritam speaks about Lalu Prasad for an hour, but never uses his name — that man has ruined a great state. Do you know, "backwards" get 20 kg of rice just for breaking a few stones on a government employment project! So nobody wants to work there. Thus many of us leave. I'm a "forward" and I have a BSc from Mithila, but many "backwards" have left too. (By the way, asks Pritam, what's your caste?) There's nothing left in Bihar for any of us. At least we earn something here, we can send some money back, we can give our children an education outside Bihar.

And how much is that "something" that men earn, here in Alang? Between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 5,000 a month, says Pritam; foremen like him are at the high end of that scale. Now that I've listened for half an hour, Pritam warms to what, even on this smoky beach, is his main theme, his pet peeve in life. You know what Bihar's problem is, he asks. The Muslims there ... 1.5 crore illegal Bangladeshi Muslims! How did they come in? Easy. Over Bihar's Nepal border, which is very open. (How the Bangladeshis got to Nepal, or why they would take such a tortuous route, and that to Bihar, are clearly not questions Pritam cares about). And "that man" encourages them. If he can stop a great leader like Togadia from entering Bihar, anything is possible! Time, I realise, to bring Pritam down to earth. Back to Alang.

The workers live in huts, visible behind the tea shacks. To anyone familiar with construction in India, this is normal stuff. Bring in men from some distant dirt-poor corner of the country, men only too glad to earn a few rupees to ward off starvation, put them in huts on the site, get them going. Simple equation, especially when there's a limitless number of people looking for work. What you might call de-construction, here in Alang, goes the same way. Because the alternative to what, to me, seems like awful work in hellish conditions for measly pay — two dollars a day, think of it — the alternative, in those dirt-poor corners, is worse. Try to think of what might be worse.

In 1998, Greenpeace reported ("Steel and Toxic Wastes for Asia") that Alang workers are "exposed daily to free asbestos fibres and vapours and dusts which contain heavy metals, arsenic, tributyl tin, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and possibly also dioxin". Asbestos, they observed, "is stripped from the ships in everyday clothing, without protective masks and with bare hands". (For contrast, there's a photograph of asbestos cleanup in Germany: a man in a full body suit and breathing apparatus).

I knew all this, for I had read that report. I knew too that the report and a more recent Greenpeace visit have forced better working conditions in Alang. Pritam confirmed this.

Yet even though the Greenpeace report is concerned with worker safety and health, Pritam didn't speak of Greenpeace with any fondness. Partly as a result of their efforts, Alang is losing business swiftly — remember the 35 occupied plots out of over 160. That is, partly as a result of their efforts, jobs in Alang are in danger. The number of workers employed here is down nearly 50 per cent from 60,000 two years ago, and that trend is accelerating. Shipowners with ships to get rid of are turning to Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the industry is less regulated.

The business, says another foreman called Rajesh, is dying. Workers are returning home. Returning to what Pritam, Rajesh and every worker here believes is worse work than tearing apart ships in Alang.

As I expected, Alang appalls me. Yet there's a small army here, working hard, earning a living. Measly wages, you think — what's $2 a day? But even that is more than they can get at home. Which, finally, is that old Indian dilemma. Yes: there in the hard-falling rain, surrounded by the tawdry debris of a thousand unwanted ships, but among swarms of wiry, industrious Indian men — you sense some finely strained essence of India.

"Alang is a wonder of the world," wrote William Langewiesche in a superb story for the Atlantic Monthly ("The Shipbreakers", August 2000). For the surreal feel of this beach where broken ships languish, yes; for the conditions, sure; for the questions you're left with, certainly. For all this, Langewiesche is spot on.

But this place is a wonder most of all for the mirror it holds up. The way it makes you look at a country anew in its familiarity.

I turn for a final glance at HMS something-or-the-other. The superstructure looms tall and mighty over us. Yet there's something toy-like about her. Something majestic, yet frail. Powerful, yet brittle.

By my left foot, fresh gas-fired sparks erupt.

Photograph by Tom Pietrasik

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