Why Alang?

Why Alang? The geography of Alang makes it ideal for shipbreaking. The beach is low and tides are as high as 10 metres. During low tide, the sea recedes by three km. The industry was set up in Alang in 1982, egged by the demand for a safe haven for shipbreaking. By 1990, over 100 ships started landing up in Alang each year. In 1996-97, the industry scrapped a record 348 ships. The annual turnover of the industry stands at Rs 6,000 crore. The profit margins in the shipbreaking industry are huge and big-time contractors make unbelievable profits.

According to Mahesh Sampat, customs superintendent at Alang, shipbreakers ranked very high among traders from various businesses in Gujarat who disclosed their income under the Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (vdis) of the Union government. "Nearly 40 per cent of the metal trade is illegal. The shipbreakers are in constant touch with politicians.Corruption is rampant, and a handful of people have things comfor-tably in control. If you take any action against them, they will reach the leaders easily," says Sampat.

The results of this nexus are disastrous. Ships that might be carrying toxic wastes, pcb s, solid wastes, oil and other hazardous materials are docked at Alang virtually unchecked. Customs officials ask the captain for a list of materials in the ship on the basis of which it is allowed to be beached. "My department does not have laboratories and other facilities to check whether any toxic material is present in the ship. So our officers largely rely on the captain's version," says Sampat. The customs depart-ment earns nearly Rs 400 crore as tax and Rs 20 crore as central excise from Alang. "Yet, we do not have adequate staff and facilities to meet the requirements of the industry," he says.

V A Pandey, additional port officer at the Alang Shipbreaking Yard, differs with Sampat. He rules out the possibi-lity that ships carrying toxic wastes have been beached at Alang. "Whenever such incidents come to our notice, we take appropriate action and do not give permission for beaching the ship," Pandey says. However, the checking process can only prevent the docking of gas-filled ships - even that in only a few of the cases. Besides, there are several loopholes in the system, as is evident from the fires and blasts that occur every few months.

Irrefutable evidence
The gmb, which monitors the shipbreaking industry in Alang, commissioned the Gujarat Ecology Commis-sion (gec), Vadodara, to conduct a study on the pollution levels in Alang. The Union ministry of steel commissioned Metal-lur-gical and Engineering Consultants (India) Limited (mecon) , Ranchi, for another study. Both the studies conclu-ded that pollution has increased considerably in the shipbreaking yard. A host of pollutants, such as asbestos, paint, scrap debris, gaskets, glass wool, oil, grease (petroleum hydrocarbons) and cement, have found their way into the marine environment near Alang, both the reports pointed out.

A team of researchers headed by S Bandyopadhyay, senior ecologist at the gec , found high levels of heavy metals like lead, zinc, nickel and tin in the yard. Bandyopadhyay points out that the wiring insulation and paints in several ships contain pcbs. "Paint coating outside and inside a ship is always toxic as it is needed to repel all biological forms from attacking the bottom layer which is in the water all the time," he says. "These anti-fouling agents can adversely affect the environment," he adds.

The cpcb found large amounts of oil in the area where the ships are scrapped during an investigation following a question raised in Parliament. This oil washes into the sea. Tests conducted on the sea water indicated oil and grease concentrations of 22 mg/litre, which is very high according to the cpcb. Labourers say that they take out a signi-ficant amount of oil from the ships before scrapping them. Still, some portion of the oil remains in the lower part of the ships. Sand is put in the remaining oil and thrown into the sea. Oil contamination can choke marine life.

The Ship Breakers Association of Alang informed the cpcb that some quantity of solid waste is burnt in the open. Bala says this could be leading to a considerable amount of air pollution from toxic fumes generated by the burning of glass wool and foamy materials. The cpcb estimates that around 250-300 kg of such material is burnt on each plot every day, the rest being disposed on land.

A case is pending in the Gujarat High Court to decide who is to provide domestic waste treatment facilities: gmb or the ship breakers. Pandey says that the gmb has engaged a consultant to plan a drainage and sewage treatment system.

Biological oxygen demand ( bod , the minimum amount of oxygen required to decompose organic compounds in water) was found to be unacceptably high in the cpcb study, indicating water contamination with domestic waste. "The amount of organic waste in the sea water near the coast is high. This problem is mainly due to the crowding of labourers living 20-30 metres from the coastline. Due to the absence of proper sanitation, the surrounding area is polluted by domestic waste,' says Bandyopadhyay.

"Pathogens which are normally killed after coming into contact with saline water manage to survive in the area. It means that the pollution load is high. If it keeps on increasing at the current pace, the region may be in for an ecological disaster,' warns Bandyopadhyay.

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