On January 8, an end-of-life ship beached off the coast of Alang, in Bhavnagar district, Gujarat. MV (merchant vessel) Horizon Trader reached Indian waters from the US, through Africa. Like innumerable other ships that have been ripped apart at this ship-breaking yard, Horizon Trader too is meant to be quietly disposed of, sold for scrap, with no trace left save for some oil stains on the beach.

Commissioned in 1972 as a cargo container ship, it is, however, likely to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — a persistent organic pollutant that accumulates in soil, water and food webs, in addition to asbestos and other hazardous material.

International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2003 guidelines for ship-breaking outline the hazards in detail: “Although many of the hazardous materials used to build a ship — asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic paint such as tributyltin (TBT), and heavy metals — are mostly restricted or banned today, a ship built 20-30 years ago still contains these materials. It also carries hazardous and flammable chemicals used for painting, repair and maintenance etc. Cables and electrical and other control systems contain hazardous material and emit hazardous gases if burned. The paint coat can contaminate air, soil and water when torched or scraped, and is thus hazardous for human beings and the environment.”

So why is a pollutant-laden ship, one that activists have been tracking on its last journey, coming to India to be broken up?

“Ships make a long journey at a huge economic cost. The reason they are willing to incur this cost is to save on the occupational, environment and health costs,” says Krishna Gopal, a member of Toxics Watch Alliance, a watchdog that tracks waste in India.

Horizon Trader arrived after a four-month voyage, towed all the way by another ship, the SS Gauntlet, and tracked globally by activists. The decommissioned vessel was sold for ship-breaking by US shipping company Matson Inc, which had, in turn, bought it from All Star Metals. Based out of Brownsville, Texas, All Star Metals has a recycling facility, where it removed the ship’s PCB-laden electric cables and self-certified that the PCB levels were not hazardous. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chose not to challenge the self-certification and cleared the export to India.

The original memorandum of agreement for the sale of Horizon Trader is with the Basel Action Network (BAN) and it mandates that the buyer should responsibly recycle the vessel in the US.

Ships that have reached the end of their life are governed by the Basel Convention, which regulates the disposal of hazardous waste. India is a signatory and it cannot trade in hazardous waste with countries that are not party to the convention (including the US and Japan). The Horizon Trader sailed unchallenged through the waters of five countries — Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Namibia and India — that are party to the Basel Convention. BAN did notify each of the countries where the ship docked, but in every case the calls went unheeded.

Activists worry that countries such as the US and Japan, with many ships to scrap and not bound by Basel, are establishing a supply chain for disposal in third-world shipyards.

Dumpyards in demand

According to non-governmental organisation Shipbreaking Platform, Indian shipyards handled 327 of the 1,026 ships dismantled worldwide in 2014; last year, this share fell to 213 out of 791. Steel prices tumbled 40 per cent in 2015, making it uneconomical to scrap ships, especially in the tightly regulated developed world. Alang in India and Chittagong in Bangladesh, alongside shipyards in Pakistan, China and Turkey have expanded their largely unregulated ship-breaking sectors to meet a worldwide demand. “With no investment, the government is earning foreign exchange and we are getting steel out of it,” argues Vidyadhar Rane, g general secretary, Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers Association (the sole trade union active in Alang).

The falling steel price has hit the ship-breaking industry as a whole, and fewer than 50 yards are active in Alang today, compared with more than 100 in 2014, according to the Ship Recycling Industries Association India (SRIA). “Chinese steel imports have cost us dearly. We have ships coming to Alang, but we are unable to get good prices for the steel we recover,” says Jivarajbhai R Patel, president of SRIA. As demand plummets back home, Chinese steel is flooding world markets.

At the ship-breaking units, explosions frequently lead to loss of life or limb, and workers battle a range of illnesses after coming in contact with toxic chemicals. In Alang, accidents during ship-breaking left eight workers dead in 2015, while the death toll was 18 in 2014, according to official figures.

“We have been able to get compensation for loss of life, but not for injuries sustained,” says Rane. “For the first time, in 2012, we were able to offer pension to the families of four workers from Piparla village, near Alang, who had died in 2009. For migrant workers, on the other hand, it becomes difficult to trace them once they return home,” he says.

A Supreme Court-appointed committee of technical experts found that the ship-breaking industry had a fatal accident rate six times higher than mining, considered to be the most accident-prone industry. The nearest hospital for Alang is at Bhavnagar, more than 50km away. All that this coastal town with a hazardous livelihood has is the Red Cross Hospital, which sees about 100 patients every day and can treat only minor injuries.

Past studies have documented the plight of migrant workers in South Asian shipyards who work in rags, with the barest minimum of safety equipment, cutting massive hulks of steel and metal into pieces that can be carted away by hand. “We understand that change cannot come in a day, but there must be the will to change; we are pursuing the matter at every level,” says Rane. A worker’s training centre is under construction to spread awareness on safety and health issues.

Gatekeepers to the graveyard

In Alang, various government agencies are entrusted with the task of checking the end-of-life ships, and the Ship Breaking Code 2013 is non-negotiable. “The Gujarat Pollution Control Board, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the Customs department have inspected Horizon Trader and found no toxic material,” says Sudhir Chadha, port officer, Gujarat Maritime Board. “Alang has changed a lot and we follow the highest standards of safety here,” he adds.

“We inspected the ship and found that it contained no loose hazardous waste, so as per the Ship Breaking Code we allowed the ship to be beached,” says RR Vyas, regional officer, Gujarat Pollution Control Board. “Any material that forms part of the ship’s structure is not normally considered hazardous,” he contends.

Bhavnagar is the site of at least three landfills that are piling up with waste from the developed world. In a landmark judgement on October 14, 2003, the Supreme Court held that the “right to a healthy environment has been defined as part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.” The court issued notices to State governments, the Central Pollution Control Board and State pollution control boards and set up a high-powered committee to examine in depth all issues relating to hazardous waste and make recommendations.

Dubious callers

Reputed to be the world’s largest ship-breaking yard, Alang has been a graveyard for hundreds of ships. In 2009, the world’s largest ship, the Seawise Giant, was notably scrapped here. Over the years, Alang has made its fair share of negative headlines too. In 2005, the Dutch Environment Minister wrote to her Indian counterpart, A Raja, asking him to deny clearance for dismantling a Dutch fugitive ship, Riky. Raja refused, memorably telling the Dutch minister that ‘a ship sailing on its own power is not waste’.

In 2006, the SC-appointed monitoring committee denied entry to the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, as the seller had failed to remove the huge amounts of asbestos it contained. It was eventually scrapped in the UK.

The SS Blue Lady in 2006, SS Platinum II in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez in 2014 were brought to India and dismantled, going against the monitoring committee’s strictures.

The Blue Lady got permission to dock at Alang on humanitarian grounds, following claims that it could not be refloated. The SC order specifying that ships must be decontaminated, must present a full inventory and formally notify the importing country prior to arrival was not followed.

The US-origin Platinum II, flying the flag of the Republic of Kiribati, arrived in Indian waters in October 2009 with papers showing that it was owned by Platinum Investment Services of Monrovia, Liberia. The ship’s registration was confirmed as a forgery by the Kiribati government. In India, till date, no one has been held accountable for allowing entry to this dubious ship.

Reinvention pays

The Basel convention, in force since 1992, is a strong framework that can help ensure that India retains its ship-breaking business and, at the same time, safeguards its workers. By ignoring this vital standard, India risks becoming a dumping ground of hazardous waste, seriously endangering the lives of its citizens.

Meanwhile, the Central government in 2013 moved ship-breaking from the ambit of the Steel Ministry to that of the Shipping Ministry. It has also proposed changes to the Ship Breaking Code. In Mundhra, Gujarat, the Adani group is building a new ship-breaking/recycling facility adjacent to its port. The plans mention that the facility would use the airbag method, where ships are carried onshore using inflated airbags and then broken down. This method is safer and less damaging to the environment compared to the open beaching practised at Alang. The project site, however, is surrounded by sensitive ecological zones and wildlife sanctuaries.

On the very day the Horizon Trader beached at Alang, the National Green Tribunal quashed the environmental clearance for the Adani port at Hazira and imposed a ?25-crore penalty to restore the damaged environment. The tribunal’s western zone Bench held that the environmental clearance granted to the project by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2013 was “illegal and must be set aside.”

Four shipyards in Alang have taken steps towards safer and greener ship-recycling practices, and they have received approvals from Japan’s classification society ClassNK.

This trying time is an opportunity for Alang to reinvent itself as a safe shipyard and claim an edge over competitors. How it handles the twin challenges of falling steel prices and environmental impact will determine whether the Alang-Sosiya shipyard continues to be a world leader or fades away piece by piece like the ships that come to die here.