01 July 2011

Back to business for Bangladesh shipbreakers:

Chittagong shipbreaking yard on a rainy day
Photo by: Tridib Ghose, 2009

DHAKA - The Bangladesh shipbreaking industry, until recently the world's largest and long criticized for the hazards involved, is again at the center of controversy after a pickup in trade following a court ruling that eased restrictions on yard owners while insisting on improvements in work and other conditions.

About 71 old ships have sailed into Bangladesh waters this year, according to Bangladesh Customs. Most carried "No Objection Certificates" (NOCs) from the Shipping Department but lacked environmental clearances. They therefore violated high court orders dating back to May 2010 and March 2009 that end-of-life ships without proper environmental clearances cannot be provided NOCs, Bangladeshi daily Prothom Alo reported on June 22.

Not all ships are being granted easy entry. Early this month, Gulf Jash, a toxic-laden vessel reportedly headed towards Alang Shipbreaking yard in India after Bangladesh denied it entry to its recycling yards. The 31,000 tonne oil carrier, previously known as Probo Koala, is believed to contain hazardous asbestos, toxic paints and chemical residues.

The Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) in India said it did not "receive any communication from Gulf Jash", but the board did impound its sister ship, Gulf Safawa, formerly named Probo Hawk, according to the DNAIndia website.

The high court in Bangladesh on March 7, 2011, set out 18 points for shipbreaking yards to follow, including the satisfaction of all prevailing environmental conditions, opening training institutes for shipbreaking workers and ensuring a better working environment. The Bangladesh Ship Breakers' Association and the government's Shipping Department have side-stepped these measures, Prothom Alo claims.

The Shipping Department requires at least one day to inspect a ship before evaluating its environmental clearance followed by issuing the NOC, Prothom Alo reported. Yet 71 NOCs were granted in the 41 working days between April 7 and June 7. Aware of the trend, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) filed a court violation notice against Bangladesh Shipping Department chief chemist Mosharraf Ashraf on April 28.

BELA has been at the forefront of opposition to toxic end-of-life ships being permitted in Bangladesh waters, arguing that they risk the lives of workers scrapping them and threaten to destroy the coastal environment around the shipbreaking yards.

The number of such yards in Bangladesh doubled in the 21 months from March 17, 2009, when the high court imposed restrictions on the activity of shipbreaking companies. (See Bangladesh shipbreakers survive headwinds Asia Times Online, March 01, 2011). Around 51 ships were imported in 2008, 34 in 2009 and 31 in 2010, according to Bangladesh Customs, while the number so far this year is more than double last year's total.

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and BELA chief executive, told Asia Times Online in March that the shipbreakers are clearly able to influence senior officials in the commerce, environment and forestry ministries, the Shipping Department and other government bodies. "Clearly there has been a violation of the high court orders," she said.

The Bangladesh government is also inclined toward the shipbreaking sector as, according to Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a non-government organization trying to improve shipyard working conditions, every year the government collects almost 9,000 million takas (US$121 million) in revenue through import duty and various taxes. The country is also heavily dependent on ships' metal as a substitute for iron imports.

Following the easing of restrictions in March this year, Hefazatur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Ship Breakers' Association, referred to the ruling as "a victory for the industry", Agence France-Presse reported. "Finally, we can see the end of our long legal problems," he said.

The court decision allowed the industry to restart the import of scrap vessels, and 50 ships, worth $250 million and with potential yield of 500,000 tonnes of iron plate according to Rahman, will be taken to pieces at Sitakundu, a shipbreaking center near Chittagong.

"The country's construction industry is booming and we estimate shipbreakers will import ships that will yield a record 3 million tonnes of steel plate this year," said Rahman to the AFP.

Following the order, Syeda Rizwana Hasan told AFP, "We are scared the government doesn't want to regulate the industry ... They are saying that legal obstacles will not be allowed to hamper the expansion of the industry."

Bangladesh's shipbreaking industry was the world's largest by tonnage in 2009 until a campaign by environmental groups to shut down the sector, AFP reported, citing Anam Chowdhury, a senior official at the shipbreakers' association.

"We dismantled 200-plus ships weighing 2.2 million tonnes in 2009. But in 2010, the amount halved and we fell behind India, China and Pakistan. Thanks to the court ruling, we hope we'll reclaim our top position," he was quoted as saying.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a senior staff writer at New Age in Dhaka

Source: By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury. 30 June 2011.

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