16 August 2014

Decision to make Shipping Ministry responsible for ship breaking could save lives:

This could be a rare chance for the government to reinvent a sector that has little regulation and is notorious for unsafe labour and health practices.

The Modi government last week announced that ship breaking, an activity that was under the Ministry of Steel, would be reassigned to the Ministry of Shipping. This could result in the creation of more ship-breaking ports modelled on the lines of the world’s largest ship-breaking centre in Alang, Gujarat.

The decision reflects a larger change in the orientation of the industry from merely recycling steel to feed national production in the 1980s to positioning India as the global centre for ship breaking.  Activists say that this should be an opportunity for the hazardous ship-breaking sector in India to reinvent itself.

“I would hesitate to call this an industry,” said Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, a non-governmental organisation that has been working on the issue of toxins in ship recycling since 1992. “There is no clarity on who the owners are, what proper transaction values are, when do clearances come in. It would be much better if all of this is made above board.”

Hazards abound

The ship recycling sector, which is estimated to earn annual revenues of Rs 2,500 crores, employs approximately 40,000 workers. Ships to be scrapped are rammed into the beach at high tide. Once the tide recedes, workers begin to dismantle the ship from front to back. As they remove parts of the ship, they haul the remnants further up the beach, eventually drawing the entire ship in. The largest problem with beaching, apart from the high risk to labour, is that dangerous chemicals often leak into the sea.

Alang’s yards practice beaching along a 10-kilometre stretch of sand by the Gulf of Cambay. The entire shoreline is managed by the Gujarat Maritime Board, but it is actually run by a collective of dozens of private ship recyclers who have to bid for places along the beach.

The owners of these yards seem to regard the government’s potential move as merely a matter of nomenclature.

“This will have no effect on our business,” said KB Tayal, vice president of the Ship Recycling Industries Association (India), an industry group in Alang. All companies in Alang and Sosiya must compulsorily be members of the association before they can get permission from the Gujarat Maritime Board to begin cutting.

Business is certainly booming. According to data from the association, more ships are being broken at Alang today than ever before.

“They will make whatever policies they have to make, but they cannot go against the industries either way,” said Tayal. “When you look at it in terms of pricing, the Ministry of Steel was better equipped for that. But the Ministry of Shipping can look into other aspects.”

No safety standards

However, the industry is rife with hazards that the Ministry of Steel did not address. These were responsibilities of the Directorate of Health and Safety, and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Fires, contamination by such chemicals as asbestos and tributyltin and workers accidents are the biggest problems in Alang today, said Rohit Prajapati, an environmentalist who has been working there for several years. On June 28, for instance, five workers died in an explosion caused by a gas leak at in a ship at Alang. Seven others were injured. The ship had not been adequately drained of gas.

Gujarat’s Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health says that 460 people have died since the Alang yard  opened in 1983, an average of 15 each year.  But activists working in the area estimate that the total number could be 50 times higher, counting the fatalities reported in small local newspapers.

“If you talk to hospitals, officers with the directorate and even doctors off the record, they will admit the reality of the situation,” said Prajapati,

Tayal was not as concerned.

“Every industry has accidents,” he said. “Some might have more than others. Even though it happens, it might be due to negligence of workers, or of the machinery. When it happens, no problem. We pay compensation to workers and a penalty to the government.”

Prajapati does not believe the move will benefit the workers.

“They are building up a structure where only one department can make point in court of law,” said Prajapati. “Multiple departments can confuse the court, where you might have one department that stands against the industry. Modi had assured the industry that he would do this while campaigning.”

No industry evaluation

While India’s other recycling industries have clearly framed environmental guidelines, Agarwal says ship recycling remains murky. India has refused to allow the World Bank and the European Commission to assess labour conditions at ship-recycling yards. The only study in recent times was undertaken jointly by the National Human Rights Commission and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It concluded on May 30, but the findings have not yet been released officially.

“It is unfair to compare India’s yards to ones in the US,” said Tayal. “EU and WB should not come here. If you see in West Bengal [where many workers at Alang come from], they don’t get any work. The highest pay scale for them in India is at Alang only.”

Agarwal believes otherwise.

“On ship building we have no accepted best practice [in terms of government regulations],” said Agarwal. “We are just going merrily ahead with beaching. If you’re building now and want foreign ships to come in, why would you not invest in a proper ship-breaking industry? You can create jobs and do it properly.”

Source: scroll IN. 13 August 2014

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