The ship is being tackled from the nose, backwards. An enormous section of the beast -- yes, the nose section -- lies on the beach. A huge trough of sand tells the story of how it came to be here, about two-thirds of the way up the beach from the ship. It's a dauntingly large bit of scrap metal, clearly fashioned into cabin and windows and office and so forth -- and yet just a glance at the ship itself tells us what a tiny fraction of the whole thing it really is.
Men swarm around this section like ants, blowtorching away. Foreman Pritam, walking about with me, pulls one of them up for not wearing his glasses. For my benefit? I don't know.
This is Alang, the shipbreaking yard -- or perhaps I should say shipbreaking beach -- on the coast of Gujarat. This is Asia's largest such yard. And this is where I find hundreds of wiry men in grimy clothes and yellow hardhats, all from Bihar, UP and Orissa, doing some back-breaking, soul-numbing work. They are breaking down ships that come here from all around the world to die. Hammering, blowtorching, chipping, tweezing, and the ships slowly vanish.
HMS Vengeance (later named Minas Gerais after being sold to Brazil) at the Alang shipbreaking yard. Sixty years old, the ship arrived in April 2004. The job of breaking her will take a total of about ten months. (Pic: Tom Pietrasik)
Bits of the ships, and off the ships, lie everywhere. Huge sheets of steel, parts cut away, sliced into smaller bits; bunk beds; canvas belts with a stylized "EUB" on their buckles and attached holsters (white) for pistol; mesh screens; doors; pumps; circuit and fuse boxes; a plastic shoe polish container labelled "Tom Bom". This ship without the nose started life as a British aircraft carrier and then spent time in the Brazilian navy. Its Brazilian heritage is clear -- most signs on the equipment are in Portuguese. Even the tiny moulded electrical connectors -- just a piece of plastic housing the connection between two wires -- have "Industria Brasileira" stamped on them.
Which made me stop to wonder. When the vessel went over to Brazil, clearly the entire electrical system, down to these minuscule connectors, was replaced. What a job! But why?
Pritam says he has about 100 workers at work on this ship, of whom about 30 are actually up on the ship at any moment. Those 30, he asserts with a hint of pride, are highly "trained" and very "skilled". So highly trained that they need only set foot lightly on a sheet of metal -- as we are doing here on shore -- and from the way it vibrates and moves they know instantly if it has already been blowtorched and cut, or not yet.
Quite a "skill" to "train" people in.
Pritam is also from Bihar, and as soon as I establish that, he favours me with a long lament about that state. First, he goes on about how the "backward" caste politics has driven all the "forwards" (like him) out of the state. ("What's your caste?" he asks me out of the blue, stopping and turning in the sand). Second, he goes on about the ruin that Lalu Prasad Yadav has brought to the state, about how there's no employment and even farming is very difficult. Third, and most fervently, he goes on about the infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims into the state, which is taking Lalu's ruin and turning it into destruction. "There are 15 million of them in Bihar!" he nearly shouts, checking himself in time and returning to his normal voice.
So how did these illegal Bangladeshis get into Bihar? "That's easy," says Pritam. "They came via Nepal -- the Bihar-Nepal border is very open." I didn't ask, but I did wonder. How did they get from Bangladesh to Nepal? Why go to Nepal first just in order to get to Bihar, which is in between in any case? Why come to Bihar at all, given the lament I've just heard from Pritam about the condition of that state?
Never mind. I'm not in Alang to look for answers -- or at least, not to these questions.
The highway leading to Bhavnagar is lined, for several miles out of Alang, with shops. Hundreds of them, selling everything from carpets to bathroom stalls to mirrored cabinets to crockery to sofa sets to mixers to fans to videotapes to pumps and other machinery. All off the ships. Most shops specialize in one or another variety of stuff, meaning you have shops that sell only mirrors. Or only pumps. Or only dishwashing stuff.
I am astonished that this shipbreaking enterprise yields enough material to sustain such a huge number of shops, and all the people running them. Consumers come here from all over Gujarat and nearby states to shop for things. To take advantage of that, some shops even sell cheap Chinese knick-knacks you find on Bombay footpaths. So I browsed through cakes upon cakes of Lervia Milk Soap, boxes of CHIRSTIAN (sic) DIOR socks ("The Most Needfull for Day to Day Life") containing four pairs each, faux-Russian "army surplus" binoculars with an inexplicable orange tint to their lenses and assorted other ... well, let me say it. Garbage.
If this is Asia's largest shipbreaking yard, this must be the world's largest garage sale. Or garbage sale.
Back near the aircraft carrier. The shipbreakers earn between Rs 3000 and Rs 5000 a month, Pritam tells me. It doesn't sound like much, but I have to remind myself that it is, nevertheless, more than they would earn at home. If they earn anything at home. Just having a job here puts them in a better place than back at home. Sure, environmental and safety conditions are a concern. If I saw the hardhats, I also saw more than one man with a broken limb. And while strolling around the beach, I once sank knee-deep into grey goo and came close to a repeat several other times; each time, I remember those NILs on the Hazardous Waste boards.
And these men tramp about here every day.
Again, I remind myself about what things must be like in Bihar and UP.
Alang is suited to the job of breaking ships because of the ready supply of cheap labour and lack of proper health and safety-regulation both of which make the operation far cheaper than it would cost in the West. Pic: Tom Pietrasik.
Yet must we do this balancing act? Should we balance these conditions, the measly pay, the goo, against the fact that they are better off than they would have been at home, at least financially? Is this a fair or reasonable exercise?
The lesson of Alang, at least to me, is not so much about environmental and safety conditions here. Though of course I want those things addressed, of course I don't want the West dumping its dirty work on India solely because Indians work cheap and standards are lax.
The lesson, despite those thoughts, is about the conditions we tolerate here in India -- safety, environmental, human above all -- that make Alang possible.
Alang will leave me brooding about that lesson for weeks.
But before that, there's time for one last oddity. The owner of the yard that's stripping down the aircraft carrier sits in an office in Bombay. We spend a while on the phone with him when we first arrive, asking for permission to wander the site and take photographs. He finally agrees, but asks us to wait for one of his men, a Ramesh, to turn up from another plot to take us around. We wait. While we do, Pritam mentions casually that Ramesh's full name is Mohammed Ramesh Khan. The way he tells us this, it's almost as if he's pointing out what an odd name it is.
Anyway, Ramesh arrives and spends the next few hours with us, strolling about and answering our questions. When we are done, I ask him his name, forgetting briefly that I actually know it. As I take out my little pad to write it down, he looks at me oddly, clearly reluctant to tell me. But at the same time, I remember the name, so I say, "Oh yes, sorry, it's Mohammed Ramesh Khan, right?"
He looks at me more oddly still. Then, curt and almost outraged, "No! Just Ramesh!"
What's this about, I wonder. Is his name really Mohammed Ramesh Khan? If so, why look at me oddly? Why the outrage? Or is it not M.R. Khan? Then why did Pritam, who clearly knew him well, tell me it was?
Is there some connection here to Pritam's distaste for Bangladeshi Muslims in Bihar? Is this Ramesh himself one of those?
I have no time to think this through. Because suddenly it is lashing with rain and we run for shelter. In a leaky porch, I look back at the plot and the looming carrier and the men carrying on their work despite the rain. In the distance, one of them sinks to his knee in goo.