25 February 2011

Making Bangladesh shipbreaking environment-friendly:

The government has recently declared shipbreaking as an industry. The sector has also been placed under the Ministry of Industries. The new government initiative is, no doubt, laudable. But the point here is that the authorities concerned need to be extra cautious on the protection of nature and environment of the surrounding areas where the industry is located.

The Prime Minister, while declaring the sector as an industry, said that all rules, regulations and conventions have to be properly maintained in conducting ship breaking activities under the new industry. She also directed the authorities concerned to bring the ship breaking yards under a disciplined and well organised system. She said ship breaking industry here and there causes serious threats to environment as well as lands of the country.

It is expected that the decision of the government would open up new opportunity for a considerable number of people to get employment. Placing of shipbreaking industry under the Ministry of Industries will also ensure discipline in its allout activities while the surrounding inhabitants, local environment and the workers and employees will be immensely benefited through it. The government expects that the decision would also reduce the market price of the essential materials of the construction sector like rod, iron and steel.

The shipbreakers said the decision has come at a very right time, otherwise the unstable and unpredictable situation would have given birth to a lengthy negative chain impact on the total sector only to add to sufferings of the people dependent on it. They said that the national economy will be hard hit through inter-linked chain reaction if the ship breaking and recycling industry is abandoned or reduced on the plea of the environmental hazards.

Indeed, the shipbreaking and recycling are expected to meet up internal needs of iron goods, help flourish ship building industry, boost employment generation, infrastructure development through booming of re-rolling mills, small, cottage and other allied industries. The shipbreaking industry took off in Bangladesh a few decades back and has emerged as the second largest employment generating sector next to the RMG only. But the unprecedented stalemate was negatively affecting this booming sector pushing at risk some 500 re-rolling mills, 50 private sector owned steel mills and thousands of small scale backward linkage industries.

Group of workers carrying heavy steel plates at a ShipBreaking yard in Chittagong.
Photo source: Dr. Tridib Ghose (July 2010)
In the absence of a clear-cut policy, more hazardous shipbreaking yards have registered a mushroom growth in Chittagong earlier, increasing the threat to life and environment of the surrounding areas. Putting the court order in legal tangles, the shipbreaking yard owners were continuing their activities.

Although more yards are being set up, the government is yet to take any move to ensure workers' safety or protect the environment. It rather let local influential people to build new shipbreaking yards destroying the "para forest". The Department of Environment (DoE) reported that the number of the yards had shot up to 70 now which were only 36 in 2008.

It was witnessed that almost all the country's shipbreaking yards are flouting the law, endangering the labourers' lives and degrading the environment. Death of ill-fated workers due to inhalation of poisonous gas, fire and falling metal scrap is common in such yards. The Labour Law of 2006 is being blatantly violated in the yards. The labourers work without any safety gear and handle toxic substances with their bare hands. They neither have any job contract nor health insurance.

It is true that shipbreaking helps the country's economy, yet at the same time, needless and callous endangering of the labourers' lives and pollution of the environment cannot be allowed. Industries Minister Dilip Barua recently asked the ship breakers to beach scrap ships after getting them fully free of gas and other hazards. He said ship breaking is a thriving sector which can be termed a 'gold mine' and that nobody should undermine its potentials.

Sitakundu in Chittagong is now the world's largest shipbreaking destination as Bangladeshi importers have beaten their competitors in India and Pakistan to buy the highest number of scrap vessels sold in the international market. The country's shipbreakers offer at least 20-25 per cent more price than their competitors in India and Pakistan, making the Bangladesh the preferred choice for the 'burial ground' of a large and medium sized ships. The country cuts ships that generate 12,000-20,000 tonnes of scarps per vessel, Indians and Pakistanis only target the small vessels that can generate on 4000-5000 tonnes per vessel.

The old ships are the main source of construction steel in the country. The ships are dismantled in huge slabs of steel and then these are melted in the re-rolling mills to become 40-grade mild steel (MS) rod. Some 80 per cent of the country's annual rod demand is met from scrap ships. The ship breaking business grew tremendously in recent time as the demand for the steel rose sharply amid recovery in the construction industry.

There is no denying that shipbreaking is a very profitable venture. The yard owners should, therefore, spend some additional money for workers safety, training and welfare under their own institutional care. And there is no need to scrap as much as one hundred poisonous ships per year. By an elimination process only the least hazardous ships should be allowed to enter the country. If such process is taken up, the number of workers will automatically come down. If yards are fewer the operation will go on through the year and regular workers will not face any temporary joblessness. Any way, a tough but an environment-friendly policy should be framed to give the ship breaking industry a better look.

The shipbreakers view the campaign against them as an international conspiracy to harm the prospective shipbreaking industry of Bangladesh. As shipbreaking is becoming an emerging economically viable sector here, some European countries are allegedly conspiring to destroy it, they added. If the country prospers in shipbreaking, the Europeans will not be required to send scraps here any more.

Criticising the shipbreakers for their dubious role in sea and environment pollution, environmentalists urged the government not to succumb to pressure from the breakers. They said no ship breaking yard in Chittagong has any environmental clearance to operate and they discharge different toxic elements into the seas and cause damage to marine life.

The safety of the workers and pollution-free atmosphere are of utmost importance in the context of Bangladesh. Yet it is also important to keep the shipbreaking industry of Bangladesh alive. If this industry closes for any reason, it could cause the collapse of other industries that depend on it. The campaign to protect the environment and lives of workers is certainty commendable. But it will also be irrational to ignore the economic value of an industry, only on consideration of some factors that are beyond its control.

Source: The Financial Express. By Shahiduzzaman Khan. (szkhan@dhaka.net). Wednesday February 23 2011

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