There are corners in this world where lost things gather, remote shores that receive what we cast adrift: glass fisherman’s floats, broken dolls, shoals of styrofoam, all the stuff of industrial society. Alang is such a place, a beach on the Arabian Sea where ships come to die.
It is a dark dreamscape worthy of Yeats. In this lonely spot, several hundred vessels—tankers, container ships, bulk carriers and the odd passenger liner—nose onto a 5 kilometer stretch of sand like some beaching of a herd of crazed steel whales. An improvised shanty town lies just behind the beach, home to the 40,000 Bihari laborers who travel for days from central India to work here. Tangles of cranes silhouette the sky and oxy-acetylene torches flicker in the oppressive tropical heat, as tens of thousands of workers swarm ant-like over the corpses in an ingenious Shiva-dance of disassembly. The fitful breeze is thick with a rich cocktail of hydrocarbons and the tang of ozone.
I watched as the hungry flame of a torch cut away at a stanchion holding the bulkhead of a 1980’s-vintage Soviet container ship. The mass of steel silhouetted briefly against the horizon before a tug from a winch cable sent it crashing to the water. An ancient crane trackwalked into the shallows, its grousers kicking up a slurry of muddy sand as it’s cable took up the load and dragged it to a waiting crew.
The tools are rudimentary, but the breaking process is conducted like something from a business school case study. The beach is divided into 170 “plots” or breaking yards, each 45 meters deep and between 30 and 120 meters wide.The owners lease their plots from the Gujarati government and buy ships on the international market through a network of brokers and traders—a typical container ship may weigh 52,000 tons and sell for $145/ton. The plot owners recover their investment only as fast as they can sell the scrap, so there is a strong incentive for efficiency.
Ships are driven into the sandy shallows at high tide, and workers climb aboard, removing everything that can be unbolted and carried off, from lifeboats and huge winches down to refrigerators, china and brass door knobs. As the ships rise in the water, they are winched ever closer to shore at each successive high tide. When the ship is within a few yards of the beach, the cutters go to work from the bow aft, slicing the leviathan into huge chunks that can be lifted shore-side. But they leave the keel, the better to skid the ship to the waiting breakers.
Once severed from the ship, the complex hunks of metal are systematically cut down into ever smaller and more uniform chunks with each successive lift up-beach. What began as a ship ends up as tidy piles of standard-sized scrap-plate loaded on trucks that depart each night for rolling mills in all corners of India. A well-run plot will produce 4,000 tons of scrap per month, going through a 52,000 ton container vessel in 8 months or a tanker in just over a year.
It is tempting to find fault with this place, and many do. The day I visited Alang, a Greenpeace launch was criss-crossing the waters with a banner reading “No toxic death ships.” These ships are indeed floating toxics sites, from oil and asbestos to lead paint and PCBs. The sands are dark with bunker oil, and the working conditions would give an OSHA inspector vertigo. The dunes shelter a shanty town of 50,000 people, larger than any slum outside of Mumbai or Bankok. A steady elephant parade of decrepit trucks carrying man-sized oxy/acetylene cylinders in and steel scrap out rumbles through at all hours. People have been killed when the steel cylinders have fallen from overloaded trucks and punched through the windscreens of following cars. In my brief trip, I saw four accidents in which the trucks had tangled with everything from oxcarts to tractors and autos.
But every last bit of scrap finds its way into the stream of Indian commerce—there isn’t so much as a bolt left on the beach when a plot-owner gets done with a ship. The environmental impacts are obvious, but the easy steel from scrap translates into ore that doesn’t have to be mined, and power plants that don’t have to get built. And the working conditions are grim, but not hopeless. Safety risks were real, but I saw worse hazards on the streets of Delhi. A 7 to 7 working day is enforced (some in India work 24 hours) and hard hats were in evidence, though not universally worn. While wages could be higher, the alternative is crushing unemployment for the back-country villagers who cross half the Indian sub-continent to come work here. Meanwhile, there are other yards in Bangladesh, where conditions are vastly worse and workers more exploited.
+pp If fault can be found in this place of lost ships, it lies with the societies that build and then cast-off the vessels so efficiently scrapped on this lonely beach. A ship is a temporary arrangement of metal midway between ore and rust, but these hulks are obsoleted by commerce and not corrosion. The breakers of Alang at least transform the commercially-extinct ships into materials that find new life in a world far removed from a too-short life of oceanic solitude.