Guide The Shipbreakers

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One of Mr. According to the Gujarat Maritime Board, the state agency that oversees Alang, the industry employs 40, migrant workers on the beaches, generates jobs for at least another , people in associated enterprises and provides 2. But Alang's success has been accompanied by growing controversy, mainly in the United States, where environmentalists and human-rights activists have questioned the propriety of allowing organizations decommissioning ships for scrap, including the United States Navy, to sell the vessels to foreign shipbreakers who observe few if any of the regulatory standards that have crippled shipbreaking in the United States.

In the last two years, Congressional hearings have resulted in tightened scrutiny of the sale of American ships to Alang, and in tougher environmental standards that have discouraged the sale of many American merchant ships. Stricter American oversight has also halted, at least for now, Alang's purchase of American Navy ships, which have been sold for scrap in large numbers since the end of the cold war. Congressional concern has reverberated in India, where authorities have scrambled to begin drawing up minimal standards of safety, health care and housing for Alang's workers.

According to officials at Alang, the combination of tighter American regulations and growing environmental and safety consciousness in India have prompted many shipowners to find alternative markets for their vessels at similar shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam, where regulaion is said to be even less rigorous than at Alang. Alang's workers live in slum conditions, in wooden shacks across from the shipbreaking yards with neither electricity nor toilets.

Most of the migrants come from three distant states, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa, among India's poorest, and spend months or even years without making the long rail journeys home to their families. But more than the living conditions, concerns have focused on job hazards. Until recent months, when yard owners began distributing helmets, goggles and gloves, workers toiled on the ships in cotton pants or loincloths, often bare-headed and barefoot.

The workers' equipment has always been rudimentary, mostly oxyacetylene cutting torches, sledgehammers and the rusting winches that pull the scrap steel and equipment onto the beach. Until recently, emergency medical help and fire-fighting equipment were minimal.

Even now, with new safety rules haphazardly enforced and two small beach-front clinics that are financed by the shipbreakers, at least two workers die every month, and dozens more are injured, mostly from exploding gases and falling steel, according to Capt. Vivek A. Pandey, overseer of the yards for the Gujarat Maritime Board. Across India, Gujarat state is best known as the birthplace of Mohandas K.

Gandhi, leader of India's freedom struggle and champion of the downtrodden. But it is also the font of a wily business culture. In the first decade after shipbreaking began in , Alang became the center of a goldrush, making millionaires of men with little knowledge of shipping, shipbreaking or of industry. He explained it to me with a rhyme, "from aviation to navigation," as if the two were nearly the same. For seventeen years afterward Pandey ploughed the oceans in cargo ships and tankers, under many flags.

He became a captain and lived aboard his vessels in master's quarters, some of which seemed to him as luxurious as hotel suites.

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He liked the tidiness and power of a ship's command, but eventually he got married and felt the pull of domesticity. And so, nine years ago, after the birth of a daughter, he settled in the state of Gujarat, on India's far-western shore. I found him there last winter, in the black hours before dawn, on a beach called Alang -- a shoreline strewn with industrial debris on the oily Gulf of Cambay, part of the Arabian Sea. I'd been warned that Pandey would resent my presence and see me as a meddlesome Westerner.

But he gave no sign of that now. He was a sturdy, middle-aged merchant captain wearing clean khakis, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Outwardly he was a calm, businesslike mariner with a job to do. He stood among a group of diffident, rougher-looking men, some in traditional lungis and turbans, and accepted offers to share their coconut meat and tea. He checked his watch. He looked out across the dark sea. A high tide had raised the ocean's level by thirty feet, bringing the waterline a quarter mile inland and nearly to the top of the beach.

In the blackness offshore two ships lay at anchor, visible only by their masthead lights.

The first was a foot general-cargo vessel named the Pioneer 1, which hailed from St. Vincent, in the Caribbean. Pandey raised a two-way radio to his lips and, calling himself "Alang Control," said, "Okay, Pioneer One, heave up your anchor, heave up your anchor. The Pioneer's captain acknowledged the order in thickly accented English. Heave up anchor. To me Pandey said, "We'll start off. What is your distance from the ship behind you?

The masthead lights began to creep through the night. When the captain reported that the ship was steady on the outbound course, Pandey ordered hard starboard rudder. He said, "Let me know your course every ten degrees. The answer came back shortly: "One-seven-zero, Pioneer One. The captain called the changing courses with tension in his voice. I got the impression he had not done this before. But Pandey was nonchalant.

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He gazed at silhouettes of sheds that were at the top of the beach. He sipped his tea. The radio said,. Pandey began talking about the Pilot's Aptitude Test that he had taken years before. He said, "It's a test for which you can appear only once in your lifetime. Either you have the aptitude to be a pilot or you don't, so it is a one-time course in a lifetime.

And very interesting On that test, using mechanical controls, Pandey had kept a dot within the confines of a 1. Now, using a hand-held radio, he was going to ram the Pioneer, a ship with a beam of seventy-five feet, into a plot on the beach merely ninety-eight feet wide. It was presumptuous of him, and he knew it.

I admired his cool. The lights of the ship grew closer. The radio said, "Two-three-zero. Ballasting is going on. The numbers counted up. At "three-one-zero," with the Pioneer now close offshore, Pandey finally showed some emotion. Raising his voice, he said, "Okay, make three-two-zero, steady her.

Okay, now you give maximum revolution, Captain! Give maximum revolution! I went down to the water's edge. The Pioneer came looming out of the darkness, thrashing the ocean's surface with its single screw, raising a large white bow wake as it rushed toward the beach. I could make out the figures of men peering forward from the bridge and the bow.

Now the sound of the bow wave, like that of a waterfall, drowned the drumming of the engine. A group of workers who had been standing nearby scattered to safety. I stayed where I was. Pandey joined me. The Pioneer kept coming.

The Ship Breakers Of Bangladesh

It was caught by an inshore current that carried it briefly to the side. Then the keel hit the bottom, and the ship drove hard onto the flooded beach, carried by its weight, slowing under full forward power until the rudder no longer functioned and the hull veered out of control and slid to a halt not a hundred yards from where we stood. Anchors the size of cars rattled down the sides and splashed into the shallows. The engine stopped, the lights switched off in succession from bow to stern, and abruptly the Pioneer lay dark and still.

I know that a ship is an inanimate object, but I cannot deny that at that moment the Pioneer did die. It had been built in Japan in , and had wandered the world under various owners and names -- Cosmos Altair, Zephyrus, Bangkok Navee, Normar Pioneer. And now, as I stood watching from the beach, it became a ferrous corpse -- in Indian law as well as in practice no longer a ship but just a mass of imported steel. The seamen who lingered aboard, probing the dead passageways with their flashlight beams, were waiting for the tide to go out, so that they could lower a rope ladder, climb down the side, and walk away on dry ground.

The new owner would have his workers start cutting the corpse in the morning. I asked Pandey if he found this sad, and he answered emphatically that he did not. He was a powerful state official in a nation of powerful officials: he was the port officer of Alang, a man who rode in a chauffeured car with a state emblem on the hood, and it was important to him to appear rational at all times. But the truth, I thought later, might even be that he enjoyed these ship killings.

He told me that during his tenure he had personally directed every one -- altogether several thousand by now -- and he took me along to his next victim, a small cargo vessel also from the Caribbean, which he had already sent speeding toward its destruction. He was proud of his efficiency. He mentioned a personal record of seven ships in succession. He was Pandey the ace, a champion executioner. Then dawn spread across his gargantuan landscape -- Alang, in daylight barely recognizable as a beach, a narrow, smoke-choked industrial zone six miles long, where nearly ships stood side by side in progressive stages of dissection, yawning open to expose their cavernous holds, spilling their black innards onto the tidal flats, and submitting to the hands of 40, impoverished Indian workers.

A narrow, roughly paved frontage road ran along the top of the beach, parallel to the ocean. It was still quiet at dawn, although a few battered trucks had arrived early, and were positioning themselves now for the day's first loads of steel scrap. On the ocean side the frontage road was lined by the metal fences that defined the upper boundaries of the shipbreaking yards at Alang. The fences joined together into an irregular scrap-metal wall that ran intermittently for most of the beach, and above which the bows of ships rose in succession like giants emerging from the sea.

Night watchmen were swinging the yard gates open now, revealing the individual plots, each demarcated by little flags or other markers stuck into the sand, and heavily cluttered with cut metal and nautical debris. The yards looked nearly the same, except for their little offices, usually just inside the gates. The most marginal yards could afford only flimsy shacks or open-sided shelters. The more successful yards had invested in more solid structures, some of concrete, with raised verandahs and overhead fans. The workers lived just across the frontage road, in a narrow shantytown with no sanitation, and for the most part with no power.

The shantytown did not have a name of its own. It was dusty, tough, and crowded.

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Unemployment there was high. The residents were almost exclusively men, migrants from the distant states of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. They toiled under shipyard supervisors, typically from their home states or villages, who dispensed the jobs, generally in return for a cut from the workers' already meager pay. The workers chose to work nonetheless, because the alternatives were worse.

In the morning light now, they emerged from their shacks by the thousands and moved across the frontage road like an army of the poor. They trudged through the yards' open gates, donned hard hats, picked up crowbars and sledgehammers, and lit crude cutting torches. By eight o'clock, the official start of the workday, they had sparks showering from all the ships nearby, and new black smoke rising into the distance along the shore. ALANG is a wonder of the world. It may be a necessity, too. When ships grow old and expensive to run, after about twenty-five years of use, their owners do not pay to dispose of them but, rather, the opposite -- they sell them on the international scrap market, where a typical vessel like the Pioneer may bring a million dollars for the weight of its steel.

Selling old ships for scrap is considered to be a basic financial requirement by the shipping industry -- a business that has long suffered from small profits and cutthroat competition. No one denies that what happens afterward is a dangerous and polluting process. Shipbreaking was performed with cranes and heavy equipment at salvage docks by the big shipyards of the United States and Europe until the s, when labor costs and environmental regulations drove most of the business to the docksides of Korea and Taiwan.

The Shipbreakers - William Langewiesche

Eventually, however, even these entrepreneurial countries started losing interest in the business and gradually decided they had better uses for their shipyards. This meant that the world's shipbreaking business was again up for grabs. In the s enterprising businessmen in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan seized the initiative with a simple, transforming idea: to break a ship they did not need expensive docks and tools; they could just wreck the thing -- drive the ship up onto a beach as they might a fishing boat, and tear it apart by hand.

The scrap metal to be had from such an operation could be profitably sold, because of the growing need in South Asia for low-grade steel, primarily in the form of ribbed reinforcing rods re-bars to be used in the construction of concrete walls. These rods, which are generally of a poor quality, could be locally produced from the ships' hull plating by small-scale "re-rolling mills," of which there were soon perhaps a hundred in the vicinity of Alang alone.

From start to finish the chain of transactions depended on the extent of the poverty in South Asia. There was a vast and fast-growing population of people living close to starvation, who would work hard for a dollar or two a day, keep the unions out, and accept injuries and deaths without complaint. Neither they nor the government authorities would dream of making an issue of labor or environmental conditions.

The South Asian industry took about a decade to mature. In Gujarat State proclaimed Alang its shipbreaking site, when it was still a pristine shore known only to a few fishermen, without even a dirt road leading to it. Twenty-two shipbreakers leased plots and disposed of five small ships that year. The following year they disposed of fifty-one. The boom began in the early s, as the richer countries of East Asia continued to withdraw from the business. Today roughly 90 percent of the world's annual crop of condemned ships now end their lives on the beaches of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh -- and fully half of them die at Alang.

With few exceptions, the breakers are not high-born or educated men. They are shrewd traders who have fought their way up, and in some cases have grown rich, but have never lost the poor man's feeling of vulnerability.

Dirty and dangerous shipbreaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh

They have good reason to feel insecure. Even with the most modest of labor costs, shipbreaking is a marginal business that uses borrowed money and generates slim profits. The risk of failure for even the most experienced breakers is real. Some go under every year. For their workers the risks are worse: falls, fires, explosions, and exposure to a variety of poisons from fuel oil, lubricants, paints, wiring, insulation, and cargo slop.

Many workers are killed every year. Nonetheless, by local standards the industry has been a success. Even the lowliest laborers are proud of what they do at Alang. There is no ship too big to be torn apart this way. More important, the economic effects are substantial -- Alang and the industries that have sprung from it provide a livelihood, however meager, for perhaps as many as a million Indians. Imagine, therefore, their confusion and anger that among an even greater number of rich and powerful foreigners, primarily in Northern Europe, Alang has also become a rallying cry for reform -- a name now synonymous with Western complicity and Third World hell.

He appeared tired, even fragile. We stood on the beach among the immense steel carcasses. I brought up the subject of the international campaign, led by Greenpeace in Amsterdam, to reform the process of ship scrapping worldwide. Although global in theory, the campaign in practice is directed mostly against the biggest operation -- the beach here at Alang. I had been told that Pandey took the campaign as a personal attack -- and indeed, at the mention of Greenpeace he struggled visibly to maintain his composure.

His face grew tight and angry. He spoke emphatically, as if to keep from raising his voice. Very clearly he said, "The purposeful propaganda against this yard should be countered. You come and look at the facts, and I'm proud of what I have done over here.

So there is nothing to hide. He implied that a cabal of shadowy forces was conspiring against Alang, and that the real purpose of the environmentalists' campaign was to take the shipbreaking business away from India. He said, "I can show them ten thousand other places outside India, point them out, which are in even worse condition than this. Why should they talk about my country alone? Pandey had given his squadron of uniformed guards strict orders to turn away any foreigners trying to enter the yards through the main gate.

But determined foreigners kept slipping in anyway. They worked for environmental and human-rights groups and took photographs of black smoke and red fire, and of emaciated workers covered in oil -- strong images that, Pandey felt, did not represent a balanced view of Alang. The moral superiority implied by these missions was galling to many Indians, especially here on the sacred ground of Gujarat, the birth state of Mahatma Gandhi.

Recently Greenpeace activists had painted slogans on the side of a condemned ship. Pandey must have taken a special pleasure in running that ship aground. He was a complex man. He claimed to know that he couldn't have it both ways, that he couldn't invite the world's ships to Alang and at the same time expect to keep the world out. Yet he insisted on trying. After the sun rose, he took me to his office, because he wanted to stop me from wandering through the yards, and then he escorted me away from Alang entirely, because he wanted to make sure I was gone.

I did not mention that I had already been at Alang for more than a week, or that I knew a side road to the site and intended to return. THE controversy over Alang started on the other side of the world and a few years back, in Baltimore, Maryland, along the ghostly industrial shoreline of the city's outer harbor, where old highway signs warn motorists about heavy smoke that no longer pours from the stacks. Early in a Baltimore Sun reporter named Will Englund was out on the water when he noticed a strange sight -- the giant aircraft carrier Coral Sea lying partially dismantled beside a dock, "in a million pieces.

Of particular interest to Baltimore, where thousands of shipyard workers had been disabled by asbestos, was evidence of wholesale exposure once again to that dangerous dust. The U. Navy, which still owned the hull, was guilty, it seemed, at least of poor oversight. Englund's first report ran as a front-page story in April of The Sun's chief editor, John Carroll, then decided to go after the subject in full. He brought in his star investigative reporter, Gary Cohn, a quick-witted man who had the sort of street smarts that could complement Englund's more cerebral style.

The two reporters worked on the story for more than a year. Their investigation centered on the United States, where shipbreaking had become a nearly impossible business, for the simple reason that the cost of scrapping a ship correctly was higher than the value of its steel. The only reason any remnant of the domestic industry still existed was that since all government-owned ships -- demilitarized Navy warships and also decrepit merchant vessels culled from the nation's mothballed "reserve fleet" by the U.

Maritime Administration -- had been kept out of the overseas scrap market as a result of an Environmental Protection Agency ban against the export of polychlorinated biphenyls, the hazardous compounds known as PCBs, which were used in ships' electrical and hydraulic systems. In practice, the export ban did not apply to the much larger number of U. Hoping somehow to make the economics work, American scrappers bought the government ships or the scrapping rights at giveaway prices, tore into them as expediently as possible, and in most cases went broke anyway.

As a result of these defaults, the Defense Department was forced to repossess many of the vessels that it had awarded to U. Conditions in the remaining yards were universally abysmal. Englund and Cohn were surprised by the lack of previous reporting, and they were fascinated by the intensity of the individual stories -- of death or injury in hot, black holds, of environmental damage, and of repeated lawbreaking and cover-ups.

Cohn especially was used to working in the underbelly of society, but not even he had imagined that abuses on such a scale could still exist in the United States. Later I asked him if he had been motivated by anger or moral outrage. He mulled over the question. I think we discovered a lot of things that were wrong and needed correcting.

But I wouldn't say that we walked around angry all the time. At the same time that Cohn and Englund were investigating the story, the Navy and the Maritime Administration, faced with a growing backlog of rotting hulls, were pressuring the EPA to lift its export ban. They wanted the freedom to sell government ships for a profit on the South Asian scrap market. Englund and Cohn realized that their investigation required a visit to the place where many of these ships would end up if the ban were lifted -- a faraway beach called Alang.

The Sun hired an Indian stringer to help with logistics, enlisted a photographer, and in February of sent the team to India. Alang was still an innocent place: the reporters were free to go where they pleased, to take pictures openly, and to pay no mind to Captain Pandey.

The reporters were shocked by what they saw -- to them Alang was mostly a place of death. And they were not entirely wrong. Soon after they left Alang, sparks from a cutting torch ignited the residual gases in a tanker's hold and caused an explosion that killed fifteen workers -- or fifty. Alang was the kind of place where people hardly bothered to count. The Sun's shipbreaking report hit the newsstands for three days in December of It concentrated first on the Navy's failures inside the United States and then on Alang.

A little storm broke out in Washington. The Maryland senator Barbara A. Mikulski promptly pronounced herself "appalled" and requested a Senate investigation into the Navy's conduct. She called simultaneously for the EPA's export ban to stay in place and for an overhaul of the domestic program to address the labor and environmental issues brought up by the Sun articles. Though Mikulski spoke in stern moral terms, what she apparently also had in mind was the creation of a new Baltimore jobs program -- involving the clean, safe, and therefore expensive disposal of ships, to be funded in some way by the federal government.

The Navy had been embarrassed by the Sun's report, and was in no position to counter Mikulski's attack. It answered weakly that it welcomed discussions "to ensure [that] the complex process of ship disposal is conducted in an environmentally sound manner and in a way that protects the health and safety of workers. We need an action plan and concrete solutions.

Her opinion was shared by other elected officials with struggling seaports. The Maryland representative Wayne T. Gilchrest announced that his maritime subcommittee would hold hearings. The California representative George Miller said, "I feel strongly that contributing to the pollution and labor exploitation found at places like Alang, India, is not a fitting end for these once-proud ships. It made sense. Certainly the U. In the last days of the Navy surrendered, declaring that it was suspending plans to export its ships. Reluctantly the Maritime Administration agreed to do the same.

The government had a backlog of ships awaiting destruction -- with others scheduled to join them. Faced with the continuing decay of those ships -- and the possibility that some of them would soon sink -- the Defense Department formed an interagency shipbreaking panel and gave it two months to report back with recommendations. The panel suffered from squabbling, but it dutifully went through the motions of deliberation. During a public hearing in March of the speakers made just the sort of dull and self-serving statements that one would expect.

Ross Vincent, of the Sierra Club, said, "Waste should be dealt with where it is generated. George Miller said, "A global environmental leader like the United States should not have as a national policy the exporting of its toxic waste to developing countries ill equipped to handle it. Barbara Mikulski said, "We ought to take a look at how we can turn this into an opportunity for jobs in our shipyards. Stephen Sullivan, of Baltimore Marine Industries, said, "We have a singular combination of shipbuilding, ship-conversion, and ship-repair expertise.

And Murphy Thornton, of the shipbuilders' union, said, "Those ships should be buried with honor. Indian Worker. Aliaga , Turkey. Gadani , Pakistan. Chittagong , Bangldesh. Jiangyin , China. Alang , India. Alang Gujarat, India. Ship Composition Ships vary greatly in size and composition.

Cut and Pull.