24 October 2010

Alang’s death yard breaking news again

LAST WEEK 28-year-old Janardhan Choudhary became this (2010) year’s 24th fatality at the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat. Local NGOs, however, claim that the figure is more than double that.

Such deaths have been routinely ignored by vessel owners and officials of the regulator, the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB). But this time the news reached the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on ship-breaking, a wing of the steel ministry. And soon the Prime Minister’s Office was seeking details of the case from Dalip Singh, joint secretary at the ministry, about how the IMC planned to handle the crisis.

Central to the issue is the ministry draft code on safe ship recycling that was prepared following a Supreme Court order three years ago, but which vessel owners continue to pass over. A top GMB official rubbished the charges, claiming that the deaths had been meticulously reported by the board. “We do push ship-breakers to comply with all the regulations. But accidents can always happen,” GMB vice-chairman Pankaj Kumar said over the telephone.

Sources say 50-70 workers die every year at Alang. Alarmed, a Central government team led by Singh and S Machendranathan, additional secretary and financial adviser to the steel ministry, visited Alang last month and issued strict directions to the GMB and the ship-breakers to improve the working and living conditions of the roughly 5,000 workers at the yard.

Earlier this year, Okechukwu Ibeanu of the UN Human Rights Council, a special rapporteur on the baneful impact of the movement and dumping of toxic and hazardous products, had been shocked to see the appalling conditions in which the workers at Alang lived.

There are also concerns over environmental damage — about the reportedly chaotic manner in which beaching, cutting and shipbreaking in the inter-tidal zone are done. “It has long been obvious to experts that in such a zone these can never be done without harming the environment,” says Gopal Krishna of Toxics Link, an NGO that works closely with the workers at Alang.

According to him, it is simply not possible to contain pollutants on a tidal beach where hulls of ships are often breached, or toxic paints erode, releasing organic pollutants, heavy metals and oils onto the beach and into the sea.

But the ship-breakers have a different take on this. “The wet sand surface makes it impossible to install emergency gear in the hull,” argues Pravin Nagarsheth, president, Iron and Steel Scrap Association of India.
Now what does the regulator have to say on that?

Source: Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 43, Dated October 20, 2010
BY SHANTANU GUHA RAY. shantanu.guharay@fwtehelka.com

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