THE BROADER PICTURE / The profits of destruction

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The Independent Culture
A FEW MILES south of Bhavnagar, a town in the state of Gujarat on the west coast of India, lies a slender strip of golden sand that has become the largest scrap yard in the world. Every day, thousands of men work along this five kilometer stretch, tearing apart derelict ships that have been run aground, crawling inside the huge metal hulls like ants in a bathtub.

The area is known as Alang, and its flat coastline and low tides make it a perfect place for ships to sail straight into the sand, where they lie like great beached metal whales alongside the corpses of other ships while the scrap workers gradually demolish them. The ageing hulks are sold through European brokers and provide rich pickings for Gujarati companies, who rent sections of beach from the state and set their labourers to work equipped with little more than hammers, winches and oxy-acetylene torches.

The ship pictured here is The Gloria, a 25-year-old Russian freighter, which spent an undignified old-age ferrying cow dung across the Indian Ocean to Sharjah, a port just up the coast from Dubai. Scrap merchants will make as much as pounds 130,000 profit from the The Gloria's steel, copper and bronze which they will flog to metal-hungry Indian industries.

Most of the 15,000-odd male workers at Alang are hired from the poorest regions of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. They live along the coast road in huts built from wood salvaged from the ships' interiors, and then bought by the kilo from their employers. To build one hut can cost 3,000 rupees ( pounds 67) - the equivalent of about 10 weeks' work. Labourers can work as long as they like - seven days a week, 30 days a month, 12 months a year: their wages are at the whim of their boss - and crushed limbs and terrible burns are a daily risk.

Their employers meanwhile have nothing to worry about: last year, 102 ships yielded over half a million tons of metal - roughly 60 per cent of the world's ship scrap. From 1995, the International Maritime Organisation will allow only double-shell tankers in order to reduce environmental risk. A whole generation of Japanese super-tankers will have to be killed off before their time, and Alang is one of the scrap yards where they might end up.-

(Photographs omitted)