Breaking up is hard to do….

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta

Ships are living creatures. Ask any sailor and he will agree and he will further say that ships are feminine. That combination of steel, paint, oil, blood, sweat, tears, sand, sea, wind and waves can be nothing but feminine. But unlike ladies, when ships reach the end of their lives, they are treated rather brutally. They are driven up dirty, oily beaches, and then are ripped apart unceremoniously till the only sign that a living breathing ship ever existed would be some oil stained patches of sand and a heap of unidentifiable steel pieces. The process of recycling a ship in countries such as India, Bangladesh, China etc. has been highlighted in the western media. For us poor innocents, who saw those videos and photographs, that entire process looks horrifyingly like the personification of Dante’s hell. So I went poking around.

First of all, do you think I am exaggerating? I am not. Here, take a look at some of these links on this ship breaking industry.

  1. Ship breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
  2. The science behind the complaints
  3. Two photo essays  here and here.
  4. A video essay here.


Video: Derek Hess in Bangladesh : Shipbreaking Yard Chittagong.

See what I mean by Dante’s hell? Naked feet treading over hot oily sand, breathing in noxious fumes without any safety equipment, clearly devastated ships, fires and sparks around the place, dark eyes and mud, earnings in the bottom layers and garbage pickers. It is indeed a hell on earth. But, according to some estimates, there are more than a million people across the world directly engaged in ship breaking, almost 200,000 in Bangladesh itself.

For very underprivileged people in poor countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc., the fact that they have any kind of employment is important. It will make the difference between starvation and existence. But this thought seems to have passed people by. When people get shocked at the sight, think about why ships are not being broken up in the USA, UK, Japan, Greece or on the shores of Italy? Well, we in the west have put in so many rules, regulations, laws, notifications and ordinances, that recycling equipment is simply not cost effective to break up ships here, especially when you have lower cost locations available. You have to wear special shoes, wear a gas mask, worry about decontamination of the ground and so on and so forth. And if you lose your job, you will always have a welfare cheque or you can move to another job.

But there are no such human health, safety or environmental requirements in Alang in Gujarat in India or in Chittagong in Bangladesh. And still people are glad to have those jobs. If you put in requirements for gas masks and decontamination in Chittagong, then what will happen? The ships will go to Sierra Leone to be broken up there instead. The 200,000 people in Bangladesh will starve because as you know, jobs or welfare cheques are not really readily available there. So while you blanch at the nightmarish conditions, do look at the smiles on the faces as well, they are doing honest jobs which the west have made uneconomic to be done in their own lands. But look at the Greenpeace site, quite an interesting site to read. The judgment call on employment versus environment protection is very difficult to make. Not an easy one at all.

There is an international convention which bars the transfer of hazardous waste between countries, namely the “Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal”. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? It was drawn up in 1992 and almost 170 countries have signed up to this declaration, but it does not seem to be stopping the trade very much. An example of a successful usage of this convention to stop a dirty ship from landing on the shores of Pakistan or India was the case of the scrapping of the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau in 2006.

After a huge global protest campaign by Greenpeace, who protested against the French violating the Basel Convention, the French decided not to send the ship to India to be broken up and the poor ship is currently tied up at the Naval port of Brest, gently rusting away. Quite a big victory, no? It would have been so, if at exactly the same time, several other ships loaded with asbestos would not have been in the process of being broken up in Alang, India, and if no more French ships loaded with asbestos had landed in India. Or if Greenpeace had continued to campaign to make sure no more asbestos laden ships landed in Alang. But life goes on. An indication of the importance of this subject to Greenpeace can be seen at their main site for ship breaking. Notice the last date of update? It is early 2006. I suppose the cameras and reporters have gone away, but the labourers who are breaking up the ships are still there.

The other main reason for scrapping in these countries is that they provide good quality steel at rock bottom prices. Bangladesh is notoriously lacking in raw commodity materials and by some estimates, this ship breaking industry provides up to 90% of the iron and steel usage in the country. Similarly, other countries utilise scrap steel in their domestic iron and steel industry. Have you seen the prices of steel recently? They have gone up through the roof. The Global Carbon Steel Composite Index has gone from 138.3 in February 2006 to 217 in March 2008. So for the poor countries that have to purchase steel, it makes more sense for them to get it in this way.

The European Union and the International Maritime Organisation seem to be working up the courage to implement a convention on doing pre-cleaning of the hazardous materials on the ships before they end up on the breakers beach and ship breaking in general. These hazardous materials are really bad, such as asbestos, dioxins, oil, chemicals, you name it. Now this is a very tricky area and will be very difficult to implement. Who pays for the clean-up? Does the last owner of the ship pay for it? Does the owner of the last cargo on that ship pay for it? Who will enforce the ruling? Do you enforce the ruling where the ship has been tied up at the last port of call? Or where the ship has been registered? (Can you imagine a country like Liberia or Sierra Leone taking this action?). Or do you make sure that every cargo owner pays some element of the cargo fees aside for eventual cleanup?

And if the fees are not paid, then where is the money to clean it up going to come from? General taxation And if so which general taxation? Do you wish this to be paid out of EU funds or national funds? If so, why would say Luxembourg have to pay for clean up of ships while it is totally landlocked? Do you change the penalties by size of the ship or by the cargo capacity of the ship? There are quite a lot of questions to be answered, but it seems like some form of a convention will emerge very slowly, with loads of holes and exclusions. Then countries will sign up slowly, the industry will shift its patterns, and over many decades or so, get to a stage where a global standard has been agreed, implemented, operationalised and policed. Long way to go yet! If you think I am joking, head over to the International Labour Organisation website and see the conventions they have written, the number of parties who have signed up and then look around to see if that has made much of a difference, these things take time.

I love ships, I adore their shapes and I love their behaviour. They are definitely human to me and that could be the inner sailor in me speaking. They are definitely contrary, need to be handled very gently and carefully and are very expensive to run. So much so, that Admiral Chester Nimitz said, “A ship is always referred to as ‘she’ because it costs so much to keep one in paint and powder.” Ships talk and murmur. Seriously, they do. Listen to them and you can hear them talking, murmuring, creaking, screeching and whining. Not on those cruise ships, they are not ships, they are gaudy ornaments, sound-proofed and carpeted all over. But a warship, a tanker, a container ship, a cargo vessel, any serious vessel, who treat the sea warily and with respect, they talk to you.

Docks talk about ships taking birth in yards, joy you feel when the ship hits the water in the rush. It is very much like a human birth. Signing of the contract, the bringing together of men, materials and money in a womb like yard and the final birth as the ship rushes down and splashes into the water to be finally born. When a ship sinks and dies, it cries. Submariners who have torpedoed ships frequently talk about the sadness they feel when the ship dies. They talk about the haunting ship’s death groans when they hear the crumpling of the ships hull as it sinks down to the ocean depths.

But perhaps that is indeed the right grave for ships, the ocean depths. To be driven up a beach and then stripped naked, all the hull and steel cut away with flame torches, all the furniture and fittings unscrewed and unbolted, the oil drained away, till nothing is left but a patch of oil stained sand is somehow very distressing. But perhaps the fact that in the ship’s death, she has given back something to the humans who built and rode her while she was alive, makes the manner of her death worthwhile.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!