A Third World dump for America's ships? India: On a fetid beach, 35,000 men scrap the world's ships with little more than their bare hands. Despite wretched conditions, they say it is better to work and die than to starve and die.

December 09, 1997|By WILL ENGLUND AND GARY COHN | WILL ENGLUND AND GARY COHN,SUN STAFF Sun researchers Jean L. Packard, Robert Schrott and Paul McCardell contributed to this series.

ALANG, India -- This is where the world dumps its ships, worn out and ready to be torn apart.

To the left and right, ships lie stranded along six miles of beach, in a hundred stages of demolition. Tankers, freighters, fish processors and destroyers -- smashed, cut, rusting, smoking -- are packed close together. This is the end of the line.

Thirty-five thousand men have come to this once-deserted stretch on the Arabian Sea to labor for the shipbreakers. They live in hovels built of scrap, with no showers, toilets or latrines. They have come from poor villages on the other side of India, lured by wages that start at $1.50 a day, to work at dangerous jobs, protected only by their scarves and sandals.

They suffer broken ankles, severed fingers, smashed skulls, malarial fevers, cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis. Some are burned and some are drowned. Nobody keeps track of how many die here from accidents and disease. Some say a worker dies every day.

"There is a shadow of death on this place," says Ram Lalit, a 22-year-old worker. "This place is haunted by death. But it is better to work and die than starve and die."

The U.S. Navy, which for years has insisted on scrapping its ships in the United States, now wants to send them abroad -- here to India, or to similar beachfronts in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

With its American scrapping program entangled in environmental and worker safety problems, criminal charges, bankruptcies and lawsuits, the Navy has decided to drop its old policy. To escape the turmoil in its domestic program, it could simply export its obsolete ships -- laden with asbestos, PCBs, lead, toxic sludge and other hazards -- to South Asia.

The plan required the Navy to obtain an exemption from rules prohibiting the export of certain hazardous materials. The federal Maritime Administration, which owns a fleet of old cargo ships received a similar exemption.

With about 170 ships designated for scrapping, the Navy and Maritime Administration point to the higher prices the vessels can fetch abroad. But selling the ships overseas could put the U.S. government in the center of a growing debate over exploitation of Third World workers -- those who make the sneakers, clothes and toys to satisfy Western tastes, and receive the used car batteries, plastic bags and toxic chemicals that the West discards.

If they are sent to Alang, the U.S. government ships will join American merchant vessels that already come here. They will add to the long ranks of broken hulks -- from Norway, Japan, Greece, Russia -- that meet their end on the 190 plots, where smoke and dust obscure the sun, and the crash of steel and the guttural rasp of the torches drown out any other sound.

The beached ships tower over the hundreds of workers who strip them apart, men who know they are expendable.

"All burden to the laborers and none to the owners," says Shive Cheren Bharti, 36, who has worked at Alang for 14 years. "There's no risk to them. If 20 people were to die at once, the owners wouldn't care."

Then, his face inexplicably lighting up in a big grin, he says, "We're the hopeless people of India."

High tides, low beach

Alang exists because of the tide. It is one of those places -- like the Bay of Fundy in Canada -- where a host of geographical circumstances come together to create exceptionally large differences between the twice-daily high and low tides. Coupled with a soft, shelving beach, the tides at Alang make shipbreaking possible with a minimum of construction. There are no piers or drydocks. Ships are simply run onto the shore.

Giant merchant vessels powered by thunderous engines and navigated by satellite signals carry the goods and fuel that enable the modern technological world to exist.

Yet a ship ends its life at the hands of several hundred practically barefoot men, and the beginning of that process depends on the phase of the moon.

Twice a month, at the full moon and new moon, high tides are at their highest, and this is when a ship, be it 3,000 tons or 50,000 tons, can be driven the farthest onto the beach. And, just as a ship is launched with a bottle of champagne smashed across its bow, the dismantling begins with workers on the beach hacking open a coconut and offering a prayer for protection to the elephant god, Lord Ganesh.

But prayers aren't always enough.

On Jan. 8, the men at Plot 37 were cutting up a Greek freighter called the Vakis-T. Eight workers were cutting a section at deck level.

"I was two feet away," says Shiv Shankar, 38. "I was talking to them. The last thing I said was, 'Why don't you work faster? It's time to get this job over with.'" The whole section broke off and plunged 40 feet into the ship's hold. Three men died from head injuries. Five survived. None was wearing a hard hat.

"This was God's will," says a supervisor, Toofani Bhai, 32. "Nothing could be done about it. I felt hurt -- it pained me. I was among those who picked up the bodies and put them on the ambulance."

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