Primed for Disaster – Gadani’s Ship-Breaking Industry

On completion of their operational lives, all ships need to be disposed off, and the most beneficial way of doing so, in theory at least, is to send them for recycling where it’s machinery, equipment and hull can all be reutilised in one way or another, without adversely impacting the environment. In practice though the process is environmentally unsound and labour exploitative, as the industry has by now gravitated towards countries with low labour costs, weak regulatory mechanisms and lax standards of enforcement.

Ship dismantling is quite an art, more so in unregulated yards. In South Asia, which accounts for nearly 80% of such work, the ship to be scrapped is first beached under its own power before being systematically stripped piece by piece, with more useful items like radio and radar equipment, machinery, ship’s steering wheel, portholes, compass etc being removed first. The ship’s skeleton is then broken down for selling the steel plates to the hundreds of steel re-rolling and re-melting mills around the country which owe their existence to such supplies, as they can ill-afford the far more costlier iron billets or ingots from steel mills.

This ship-breaking activity, which takes place on the beach itself, forces workers to work at dizzying heights without the aid of cranes, in places where no emergency exit or access is possible. The vessels are likewise not cleared of residual oil, gases and chemicals before being beached, exposing both the environment as well as the workers to high levels of toxicity. Apart from workers dying or falling unconscious through inhalation of toxic gases in enclosed compartments, the use of blowtorches for cutting work also proves fatal as the explosion at a Gadani yard on 1st November 2016 showed.

Gadani’s ship-breaking industry, as it is generally referred to, is one, which despite its money-making potential, has always been primed for disaster. The reason is the same as that which caused it to flourish in the first place: it’s disregard of environmental and labour safeguards. It is a pity that it took a major accident like the afore-mentioned explosion onboard a 24000 tonnes oil tanker during the scrapping process to bring the horrendous working conditions at the ship-breaking yards under the scanner.

The stretch of beach reserved for the purpose is a virtual death-trap, in which as many as 15000 impoverished workers risk their lives everyday tearing down ships at a breakneck pace. Despite the hazards, there is no dearth of workers trickling in from all over the country, and even beyond, in search of an elusive livelihood, living undocumented and dying unlamented. The absence of any legislative framework governing this activity translates into a lack of governmental oversight, leaving the workers open to exploitation, bereft of any social, health or safety blanket.

Strange as it may seem, the Gadani coastline is no stranger to the craft, having hosted informal ship-breaking activities since before the country’s independence. Voices being raised in the West regarding environmental concerns and unsafe practises associated with this industry led to the re-emergence of Gadani in 1967 as a major ship-breaking centre. In its heydays in 1982-83, the yard provided employment to over 30,000 workers, while half a million others benefitted through the use of ship scrap as a cheap raw material.

Imposition of stiff import duties thereafter for decommissioned vessels, coupled with a steep raise in taxes, led to Gadani’s decline and the concurrent ascent of competitive yards at Alang in India and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Gadani’s fortunes revived somewhat in 2001 after the government scaled down the taxes and offered other needed incentives. Bangladesh took the top spot in 2004, and for the next 5 years, it was dismantling nearly 50% of the global tonnage being put up for scrapping. This breakneck pace came to a grinding halt in the wake of an year long ban imposed by the Bangladesh High Court in a bid to force the government to undertake the much-needed reforms. This ruling ultimately resulted in this activity being accorded the status of an industry as part of an overall plan to promote higher labour standards and better toxic waste management.

Ironically, it was the global economic downturn of 2008 which rendered many ships surplus and freed them up for disposal that gave the industry an added fillip. In the year 2012 alone, Gadani dismantled 133 ships, Chittagong 286 and Alang a whopping 415. As can be seen, Bangladesh is slowly but surely regaining its market share, being second only at present to the Alang-Sossiya complex in India.

Gadani however enjoys the dubious distinction of being the most efficient, with a ship of 5000 Light Displacement Tons being broken down in one-fifth the time taken by an Indian or Bangladeshi yard. This efficiency comes at a steep price though, extracted from the workers that it employs and the environment that it sullies.

Unlike the entrepreneurs of the nineteen seventies, the local industry is currently being run by profiteers, albeit influential ones, on plots leased from the provincial government, with the Baluchistan Development Authority itself retaining control over a third of them, whose management is marginally better. The problems plaguing the industry are legion, ranging from poor quality access roads to a lack of water, electricity, eating, lodging, sanitation and health facilities. The working conditions are terrible, made more so by the high levels of toxicity a worker is regularly exposed to.

When the transportation of hazardous waste and chemicals to developing countries was threatening to become the norm, as the environmental laws were being continuously tightened in the developed states, the 1989 Basel Convention sought to address such concerns by prohibiting such transboundary movements without prior permission. The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships 2009 is however a comprehensive document which deals with all aspects of the recycling process from the design, construction, operation and preparation of ships to the use of ship recycling facilities, all meant to undertake the job in a regulated manner. This Convention was supposed to enter into force upon signing by 15 states representing 40% of world shipping. It has received a lukewarm response so far, with barely 5 states affixing their signature, for reasons completely at odds: the developing countries feel that the laid-down conditions are difficult to implement, while the developed states believe it does not go far enough. The latter group thinks that the agreement lacks teeth, it’s enforcement being largely dependent on an examination of documentary evidence. The European Union has accordingly pieced together its own legislation which prohibits any EU-registered ship from being recycled at yards which do not come up to the high green ship recycling standards specified. There is still no dearth of ships making their way to the unsafe yards of South Asia as a bulk of the world’s shipping is registered in ‘flag of convenience’ states.

Dadani’s ship-breaking industry as it is traditionally known is admittedly beset with a host of problems. So what exactly propels it to such a level of ‘success’? Greed, for one! The revenues that the federal as well as the provincial governments receive presumably makes them turn a blind eye to the atrocities inflicted on the environment and the jeopardy the workers are subjected to. The yard owners reap huge profits from the enterprise, as much as $5 million per ship, all at the expense of those who work round the clock in hazardous conditions for a pittance, with no fringe health or insurance benefits.

Casualties have become a way of life, mere statistics. But now that such a serious issue has been thrust to the forefront of the national consciousness, courtesy of a single major explosion, the question is whether anything will be now be done about it. A serious inquiry as is being promised would reveal what people in the know already know. Nothing short of a complete overhaul would do, inclusive of our legislative, inspection and enforcement mechanisms. An excellent role model to aspire to would be Turkey, a country whose green recycling credentials has made it a destination of choice for all conscientious states.

For this to happen, profiteers need to be replaced with genuine entrepreneurs willing to set up the desired infrastructure like dry docks and cranes, equip workers with adequate protective gear and attend to their basic welfare needs. The Government for its part needs to provide all the necessary utilities and amenities, improve the road access network and readjust the taxes at a reasonable level. In the interim period, the setting up of a hazardous waste storage and disposal system can facilitate the pre-demolition activity of cleaning up all tanks and bilges of oil, paint and chemical residues.

Such hazardous activities under the very nose of law enforcement authorities have gone on long enough. The way forward is already known in the form of the 2009 Hong Kong Convention as well as the health and safety guidelines issued by the International Labour Organisation. All that is required is to enact and enforce local legislation aimed at converting this unstructured activity into a green enterprise to ensure the safety of the workers as well as the environment.


Note: This article was published in the December 2016 issue of the monthly magazine ‘Global Age’.



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