The other day in a stormy evening, three workers at a ship breaking yard at Sitakundu in the Chittagong district of Bangladesh were crushed to death as a heavy steel plate fell on them. In nearly past two decades, no less than 500 workers were killed in accidents while at work at Sitakundu, home to the world’s second largest ship breaking yard after Alang along the Arabian Sea coast in Gujarat. This Bangladeshi toll is exclusive of many deaths, mostly unrecorded, caused by handling of hazardous waste materials and emission of toxic fumes.
Arguably, the scene at Alang was equally despicable till the Supreme Court started issuing orders to the government to ensure the safety, health and welfare of ship-breaking workers. The ministry of steel, again under the court directive, is formulating a code of conduct for the yards incorporating the recommendations of a committee of technical experts. A common problem of India and Bangladesh is that in spite court directives, ship-breaking yards, which were a law unto themselves till some time ago, are still prone to breaking rules. That’s why workers get killed or injured at yards not infrequently and areas in and around Alang and Sitakundu remain dangerously polluted. The scene is no different at Pakistan’s Gadani ship-breaking yard either.
NGOs and environment activists would want such yards to be shut. But since condemned ships are a good source of clean ferrous scrap good for direct rerolling into new steel products, governments of the three countries would rather subject yard owners in boundaries of discipline than go for yard closure. A Bangladeshi minister has made the government’s policy choice clear by saying that “our closing down the ship-breaking yard will turn the country into a market for foreign ironmongers. We are trying to create a separate zone for the industry in line with the prime minister’s directive.” India looks at the ship-breaking industry more or less in the same way.
According to G K Basak, executive secretary of Joint Plant Committee of the steel ministry, of India’s annual requirements of up to 12 million tonnes of ferrous scrap, as much as 3.5 million tonnes this year will come from dismantled ships, against 3 million tonnes in 2009-10. The generation of good quality rerollable steel in large quantities when ocean going ships are beached and dismantled underpins the importance of ship-breaking industry, its present pitfalls notwithstanding. While scrap steel originating in ships is the favoured feedstock for many rerolling units here, nearly 200 rerollers in Bangladesh depend heavily on about 2 million scrap generated at Sitakundu. Gadani generated over 850,000 tonnes of scrap last year for use by Pakistan’s rerolling industry.
Over 65 per cent of steel recovered from a condemned ship comes good for rerolling. But why so? This is because rerolling of ship plates require reheating of only up to 1,000 degree centigrade and that greatly restricts scale formation. Ship steel, as rerollers say, has fine grains giving it a good corrosion resistance character. A steel ministry paper says shapes and sections rerolled from ship steel are largely immune from physical defects like seams, internal cracks and furnace burns. Rebars made from low ductility ship steel lend themselves well to intensive cold twisting. Ship steel not found good for rerolling goes for melting.
Roughly 45,000 ocean going ships are floating on waters and each year up to 1,000 ships are beached. Ships remain seaworthy for up to 25 years. But there is a general tendency among ship owners to keep their vessels afloat beyond their useful life when the freight market stays buoyant. Like other sectors, freight market bore the burden of both financial crisis followed by downturn in world trade. Baltic main index continues to behave erratically. Shipping will always be impacted by what happens to the global economy, for nearly 90 per cent of traded goods globally are transported by sea.
In any case, at all times the three countries in this sub-continent will remain locked in competition to buy old ships. Ship-breaking, though it has a murky past, has an important bearing on the coastal economy of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is a highly labour intensive operation providing jobs to both skilled and unskilled workers. The units at Alang accounting for over 90 per cent of the industry, provide employment to over a lakh of people. More than the revenue consideration for the government, what is important is that to the extent ship steel is generated and recycled either through rerollers or furnaces leads to conservation of iron ore, coal and energy.
This industry cannot be wished away. But at the same time strict vigilance of the work of ship breakers is called for. The government should also nudge them to use modern fuel based torches, mechanical cutters, detonation charges for handling very thick metal and cranes for transfer of steel and other materials. Why should the workers be pressured to carry heavy metal plates endangering their lives? Every time a ship is to be broken, it must have a comprehensive dismantling plan from the superstructure to the hull.