The piece of legislation that the Jatiya Sangsad late last week adopted to discipline the country's ship-breaking industry has been long overdue. Notwithstanding its importance in the economy and the risks that it poses, when unregulated, to the environment, the governmental efforts were too scanty for streamlining the ship recycling industry that has flourished along the coastline of Chittagong since early 1980s. The industry that now employs hundreds of workers and makes available more than half of the basic raw materials to the re-rolling mills, is one of the largest in the world.
However, the industry did not originate locally and grow spontaneously. When the cost of ship-breaking had gone abnormally high in the developed countries, ship owners chose the developing countries like China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Bangladesh to scrap their vessels because of low cost of labour and lack of concern about environment and safety issues in these countries. In Bangladesh, the local entrepreneurs took the advantage of the situation. They started importing increasing number of old vessels for dismantling along the coastline. However, the relevant agencies, from time to time, issued a few rules to help contain environmental damage and ensure safety requirements. But the enforcement of such rules, whatever these were, was very lax.
Almost everything recovered from the scrapping of a ship, including hull, engine, machinery, generators, furniture, etc., is recycled and reused in Bangladesh. But the very method used in scrapping of ships, lack of concern among the ship-breakers about the safety of poor workers and disposal of environmentally hazardous goods and chemicals turned out to be serious problems. Questions started pouring in from different directions about environmental and safety issues. But such concerns had largely fallen on deaf ears of the relevant authorities. Thus, all the pleadings for taking appropriate measures to control the harmful activities were virtually ignored. Under such circumstances, the industry continued to expand and the steel manufacturing units, dependent on scrapped metal, witnessed an unabated growth.
But environmental degradation apart, what emerged as the most serious concern, is the physical safety of workers engaged in dismantling of scrapped vessels. Hundreds of workers have died so far and a few thousand more received serious injuries in accidents in ship-breaking yards. The law passed by the parliament on ship-breaking contains certain provisions to mete out punishment to individuals/organizations that violate its provisions. The issue of workers' safety has also been taken care of. The operators in the industry will now have to extend life insurance coverage to each and every worker. More importantly, the law provides for establishment of a separate zone for the ship-breaking industry that has been growing haphazardly along the coastline in different shipyards.
The ship-breaking industry has been fetching a handsome amount of revenues for the government. So, the industry deserves fair treatment in all matters. But what should get top-most priority is the country's environmental interests and workers' safety and security. The industries ministry has fulfilled the first requirement by adopting the law in question. But equally important will be its proper enforcement. Hopefully, the government will not fail on this account.
Source: the financial express. 29 January 2017