14 December 2017

Shipbreaking woes

India takes a welcome step to clean up the industry

India, which along with Bangladesh dismantles most of the world’s discarded ships, has done well to draft a legislation that sets labour safety and environment benchmarks for shipbreaking. The proposed law is aligned with the Hong Kong convention adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in 2009, so far ratified by Norway, Congo, France, Belgium, Panama and Denmark, but not by 15 other countries that make up 40 per cent of the world’s gross merchant shipping capacity. Given the state of affairs at Alang in Bhavnagar district, Gujarat, considered the world’s largest shipbreaking facility, it is high time such a law came into force. Alang houses at least 50 companies in ‘plots’ along a 12-14 km stretch along the sea coast, employing an estimated 40,000 workers, directly and indirectly (the latter includes ancillary industries that re-roll the steel scrap in adjoining factories). While there are no reliable records on accident deaths, the situation till recently is best captured by a chilling anecdote cited by the workers there: ‘one ship is dismantled, and one worker dies each day’. Alang and Chattogram (Bangladesh) have emerged as shipbreaking centres over the last 30 years after the rich countries found it costly to do so, and framed their own labour and environmental laws. In 2016, India dismantled over 300 ships, against about 220, 140 and 70 in the case of Bangladesh, Pakistan and China. But in terms of gross tonnage dismantled, Bangladesh is ahead at over nine million tonnes, against Alang’s eight million tonnes. Turkey and the EU are less significant players. Ships in India and Bangladesh are dismantled on the beach rather than on dry docks, which adds to the toxicity of the soil, water and air. ‘Beaching’ is banned under EU regulations, while the Hong Kong convention pushes for clean beaching practices.

Shipbreaking has taken a hit in recent years because of the slump in steel prices, and with it of recycled steel as well. A ship changes many owners as its lifespan of 25-30 years comes to an end, as a result of which owners wash their hands of the responsibility of ensuring that it is dismantled in a responsible way. Greece and Germany are top offenders in outsourcing their vessels to be beached. Efforts to clean up the industry should include bringing such grey activities under the scanner.

That said, the tide may be turning. A $76-million soft loan from Japan will help concretise the Alang coastline. Major corporates are setting aside funds to clean up the shipbreaking industry. The situation at Alang has improved of late, but what’s really called for is a complete break from toxic, hazardous practices.

Source: the hindu businessline. 08 December 2017

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