Amongst footloose workers
Reminiscences from a visit to Alang about 10 years back
urally concerned because Alang ensured an about Rs 250 crores annually to the state exchequer, which could rise further. The Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) — custodians for the AlangSosiya 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), and the chief engineer of GMB ( a few months away from retirement) walked along the Alang coast, we could not but be overwhelmed with the enormity of the tasks. My colleague explained that we had the mandate to do all that was required to comply with the environment protection laws and save the industry. But with very little scientific literature on the matter, I did not have an idea of where to begin and therefore created separate research teams to study almost all conceivable angles. The socioeconomic studies focused on the resident population, the migrant workers and the entrepreneurs (including those in ancillary industries). The findings were astounding. Few living creatures were adapted to withstand conditions of such high tidal amplitude and even those assemblages were found to be normal just a kilometre away from the ship-breaking zone — both to the north and south. So, unless they were physically trampled upon, the effects of pollution were not evident. But, as mentioned initially, the socioeconomic studies were a revelation. 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 regulation and investment on infrastructure, but that was definitely not the issue uppermost in the minds of policymakers them. In consultation with our advisors, — one of whom described ship breaking as a footloose industry — we decided to bite the bullet in favour of realism. I chanced upon Alang again in 2000, this time on a separate project. Our jeep drove down a wide metal road with streetlights that actually lit up. A siren went off and thousands of workers stepped out from the yards, all with helmets, boots and gloves. They worked to eight hour shifts now. Casualties had dropped drastically. But business, I was told, was not really as booming. “Footloose industry” it was, I thought, and thanked God we didn’t waste money on so-called “environment protection” measures. n The author was formerly senior ecologist with the Gujarat Ecology Commission. The views expressed here are his alone



still remember the sharp chill that went down my spine when I first set my gaze upon Alang one spring afternoon in 1996. From my elevation at the north end of the shipyard, I could see about hundred vessels, or what remained of them, gently lapped by the rising tidal waters of the Gulf of Khambhat. The waters could rise and fall by as much as 12 meters in almost as many hours. 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 Taiwan’s shores. What began as a small operation in the early 1990s quickly grew to attract a male workforce of 30–60,000 from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, on a seasonal basis depending upon the harvests (or lack of it). Able-bodied men earned Rs 2,000–2,500 per month, while those who could operate the crude, LPG-based cutting system earned double that. These were princely sums compared to what they could earn from the land back home. But the downside was also substantial. A dozen men shared a shack, constructed crudely with wooden planks dismantled from the ships. The sea provided for toilet and bath. Food and sex were available for a price, but medical, fire and police services were absent. These were badly needed: there were unconfirmed reports of 2 to 5 deaths due to accidents per week on an average. These, however, had nothing to do with my maiden visit to Alang. I was there to address the environmental concerns, apparently raised in the parliament. The Gujarat government was nat50 Down To Earth • March 15, 2006

In 1996, workers at Alang had no safety gears. Most have this security now

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