My first encounter with India’s shipbreaking industry was through Torontonian Edward Burtynsky’s remarkable photography exhibit, Manufactured Landscapes (now also in documentary format), last year in Brooklyn, in an unforgettable, imposing image of a towering, gargantuan hull – one that was to be broken down by hand – a poignant juxtapositioning of man versus the machine.
Alang, India, is the place where for the past year environmentalists have been protesting for the health of shipbreakers there, with the breaking of the 46,000 ton, 16-storey tall Norwegian cruise liner Blue Lady. Greenpeace states that the shipyard does not have the technology to safely dismantle the ship, which they estimated could contain 900 tons of toxic waste like asbestos.
"Ships like the Blue Lady are hazardous – but fires, falling from heights, explosions and asphyxiation while working in enclosed area are not the only hazards," said Dhayay Triveni, an environmental activist. "Asbestosis is also a silent killer at Alang."
Nevertheless, last month the Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the ship could be scrapped, as long as strict worker safety guidelines were followed, including decontamination prior to dismantling and disposing properly of toxic waste.
But there is another side to the story, as one worker puts it: "Forget toxic fumes and chemicals, I might die due to poverty," says 33-year-old Rafiq Sheikh, a migrant labourer and father of four who moved to Alang in 1993.
While the legal battle had raged on for a year, many of the yard’s 5,000 workers were forced to take employment in factories or tea stalls and collecting garbage to sell for food.
Many of them are poorly equipped on the job and as a result, suffer respiratory illnesses and accidents. Many also have no health insurance and call the city’s slums home. There are only two doctors caring for the workers at the government hospital. As some officials admit, the mock safety drills and workshops that were promised by the government and yard’s owners happen infrequently at best.
So what can good intentions really do for the most vulnerable of people like Alang’s shipbreakers? There is no doubt that health and safety conditions for the shipbreakers of Alang should and must improve, but it seems that the answer to that question lies somewhere beyond the monstrous and very real choice of either dying slowly of asbestos poisoning or dying of hunger – in other words, tackling the poverty that is at the root of situations such as the one in Alang.
Image: Edward Burtynsky