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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Balancing global and local industry concerns with environmental and social change / Alang-India

Posted By: Somnath Bandyopadhyay
Date: Thursday, 5 October 2000, at 3:24 p.m.

In Response To: Industrial safety concerns in the ship breaking industry / Alang-India. (Vidyut Joshi)


MODERATOR'S NOTE: The Alang and Sosia Ship Breaking Yard (ASSBY) in Gujurat, India, is the largest ship-breaking yard in the world and employs 35,000 migrant workers from all over India. Previous contributions to the Forum have described environmental problems, worker safety and social conditions in and around the ASSBY {http://csiwisepractices.org/?read=85 (86, 77, 4)}. The ASSBY and its surrounding area is the focus of an ongoing pilot project which seeks to bring the major players together so as to develop successful adaptation strategies.


Following the meeting on the ASSBY pilot project (27-28 July, 2000) I would like to share some insights with you based on my own multi-disciplinary research on the ASSBY in 1996.

The ASSBY developed in response to global market changes coupled with local policy changes. This 'footloose' industry was not planned, and it is hazardous to plan for it in the long-term.

Stakeholder interests: There are four major stakeholder groups, as mentioned.

i) Ship breakers: Their main interest, understandably, is profit maximisation and cost-cutting. At the global level, they are also concerned about remaining competitive, vis a vis competition from ship-breaking yards in Karachi, Chittagong and (now we were told) China. The migrant workers and low level of technology form the major strength of their ship breaking business enterprises.

ii) Gujurat Maritime Board (Government): Their interest is primarily to sustain/enhance revenue collection. A low profile, low investment operation in a nondescript corner of the country, involving outside (migrant) labour, does not prompt great political interest or intervention. However, the media exposure of health and safety issues (and later environment) created an adverse image that called for certain 'knee jerk reactions', affecting business as well. The government now is committed to providing public services and attempting to retrofit certain management and planning measures.

iii) Workers: Their prime interest is to make money to supplement whatever meager income they may have back home. They have no incentive to settle in a job that they know is hazardous. They care to spend only on food and are normally well-nourished. They would cut costs on anything else. Smaller living space enhances male bonding that is essential to cope with a hazardous job (in some cases, it might lead to sexual relations but these cannot be widespread because (a) there is no room for privacy in an all-male society; and (b) there is a strong social stigma attached to unnatural sexual behaviour that will adversely affect their social standing back home). Open air defecation and other sanitary practices are also related to their habits back home and obviously there would be strong resistance to change, particularly if it involves payment. They might be more willing to pay for health services since the loss of productive workdays due to sickness or accident reduces their income. Leprosy and TB are prevalent diseases in their native areas and might be a good area to begin with. Formal education is the last thing on their mind. There are hardly any under 14 year olds, and the rest didn't come all the way to study! However, the younger generation will be more open to technical training (of a wide variety) and the language issue will not be a dominant factor. I believe, if quality training is made available, many would be willing to pay as well.

iv) Local communities: They do not have a choice but to adapt. Developments at ASSBY were thrust on them and they are responding in various ways. I believe mafias are formed out of survival instincts where the government has remained ineffective during crucial stages or has responded in a delayed or arbitrary manner. Confidence in the role of law needs to be restored first. What we learnt about 'mafias taking root' is nothing more than an ability to manipulate government machinery. The task of development agencies will be to anticipate the changed socio-economic scenario and set about enhancing the capabilities of the local people to deal with the changes. Pragmatic and democratic community organisations must be formed for specific tasks, or more mafia organisations will emerge. Documenting and establishing wise practices will primarily involve stories of rapid and successful adaptation strategies adopted by the local communities. A challenging task indeed for the social scientists.

Environmental concerns: Thanks to the media and activist groups like Greenpeace, environmental problems provide an opportunity for all and sundry to score an easy point. I would like to put the entire issue in a different perspective.

Suppose the total potential environmental impact of this industry is x (and x is very substantial), I would argue that the strategic location of ASSBY would take care of at least 0.8x. The high tidal range, strong currents and rocky substrate ensure very little local damage, and being located at the mouth of the Gulf also ensures better flushing into the sea. The inter-tidal benthic macro-invertebrate community is affected only in the plots where the ships are dismantled. Both the phyto- and zoo-plankton population dynamics are explained by natural factors. On the shore, vegetation indices beyond 500 m from the shore reveal little impact (the occurrence of Parthenium was not known to us; even so, it is of little consequence since it is a well studied weed in India). Glass-wool and thermocol float as debris and draw media attention. There are some concerns from heavy metals in the paint that is scraped in the yard and oil that leaks during transfers off the coast. The load of pathogenic bacteria is high, despite the hostile sea-water, indicating continuous input.

The 0.2x of environmental damage potential, primarily from oil, heavy metals and bacteria can be managed to a large extent through better housekeeping and knowledge inputs. Restricting scraping of paint in the yard and careful transfer of oil can be achieved. We have also warned against popular notions of dredging for 'clearing off the muck'; on the contrary, the heavy metals that are locked in the sediments (these sediments are again particularly suited for binding the heavy metals) would be released into the environment if dredging took place. I am sure good housekeeping practices, many of which are already being put into practice, will take care of 0.15x.

The remaining 0.05x would require enormous financial, technological and management input. This is certainly not desirable at this stage since it will lead to serious global competitive disadvantage for the industry.

Mr Somnath Bandyopadhyay,
Senior Ecologist,
Gujurat Ecology Commission,
Gujurat, India.

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