They deliver them onto the beaches at high tide and wave goodbye. Log onto Google Images to see the marooned hulks of the ships, picked apart by workers. I decided to visit India last year for an even closer look.
A U.S. visitor is struck by the work-safety challenges within an economy pervaded by workers extremely poor, migratory and surplus. Indian work-safety standards have improved recently, but that's not saying much. Ten years ago worker protection was virtually nonexistent. But employers are still not required to report deaths and injuries.
Approaching the shipbreaking operation in Mumbai (Bombay), which is concentrated in the Darukhana area, you drive past thousands of dwellings fabricated from wooden planks, covered with metal, cloth or plastic sheets to prevent rain from coming inside.
Children play next to a thin, slow-moving stream of motorcycles, three-wheeled taxis, sedans and trucks. A herd of cows joins the dusty parade. Every so often, we see a cluster of restaurants and barber shops. If there is any sign we are getting closer to the shipbreaking area, it is the greater frequency along the roadside of men with bodies hardened by tough labor.
Shops appear filled with metal cylinders, blue-painted winches and generators. These are the downstream shipbreaking distributors that might also sell such things as linen, frosted glass and toilets.
We turn onto a straight path that can barely accommodate traffic. About 100 small sheds line the road, each big enough for a car. They emit an oven-like heat. Inside, young men, glistening black down to their waist from grease, cut up metal. With the outside heat well over 90, the interior of the sheds must approach 120 degrees. An oversized forklift blocks the road. It maneuvers stacks of metal sheets into a large shed, assisted by workers inside.
At the end of the path, we come to what looks like a small landfill before an open body of water. Right upon the beach, listing to port, lies a blue-painted freighter with "Capetown" in white on its stern as the port of origin. The freighter looks as if the front half of it has been eaten away. Large sections of it, perhaps two dozen in number, lay strewn before the cavity of the ship's interior. From 50 feet away the heat and smell of burnt gasoline are intense.
Several men are torching metal from metal, a procsss which ends with the collapse of a disengaged, jagged sheet onto the ground. The sheet will be lifted by hand and derrick and carried into one of the sheds.
These men are engaged in a monumental effort to break apart the ship into 10,000 bits for absorption into the life of the country. They will be processed through the neighboring sheds and head to scrap steel factories so that they can made into reinforcement bar for construction or uncounted other purposes. The asbestos in many of these old ships, known to cause cancer when handled without protection, can be recycled as readily as a generator.
We in the developed world shed these once-valiant ships like a used pair of sneakers and forget about them just as quickly.But let us not forget the workers of Daurakhana, those who valiantly feed the burgeoning steel industry in Mumbai and who work for at most $4 per day with little workers' compensation protection.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is a Vermont-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
(For more on shipbreaking, Peter recommends visiting the Shipbreaking in Bangladesh Web site, as well as reading an article he wrote on the topic for the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.)
February 14, 2008
Copyright 2008© LRP Publications