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Planet Ark World Environment News Poor Indian Labourers Happily Scrap "Toxic" Ship

Date: 11-Oct-07
Country: INDIA
Author: Rupam Jain Nair

The breaking of the 46,000-tonne Blue Lady was given the go-ahead by India's Supreme Court last month after a long-running legal battle led by environmentalists, who said the Norwegian ship contained 900 tonnes of toxic waste like asbestos.

Every day, hundreds of ship breakers at the Alang shipyard in Gujarat state climb up and down the ladders stretching up to the towering 16-storey Blue Lady, bringing down tables, chairs and chandeliers.

Later, they will break down the entire ship.

Despite warnings on the risks involved, the workers have welcomed the Blue Lady, saying their health is secondary to the need to earn enough money to feed themselves.

"Forget toxic fumes and chemicals, I might die due to poverty," said 33-year-old Rafiq Sheikh, a migrant labourer and father of four who settled in Alang in 1993.

Sheikh lives in one of Alang's congested slums, sharing a single room with eight men, with no running water and electricity.

When there are no ships to break down, life is hard for the workers -- eating in the open kitchens of the shipyard and collecting scraps of strewn garbage to sell for their evening meals.

While the legal battle over the Blue Lady was being fought in the capital's top court for over a year, many workers were forced to take on other jobs in nearby factories or running tea stalls, praying they would be given the go-ahead to dismantle the ship.

India's Supreme Court allowed the ship to be scrapped provided strict guidelines were followed to ensure worker safety. This includes decontamination before dismantling and proper disposal of toxic waste.

But Greenpeace says the yard does not have the technology to safely dismantle the ship.

A report by the group in 2005 said thousands of workers in the ship-breaking industry in countries such as India, China and Pakistan may have died over the past two decades due to exposure to toxic waste or in accidents.

Colourful posters with safety instructions for workers have been put up across the town, but mock drills and safety workshops which are supposed to be conducted by the government and shipyard owners take place very rarely, officials admit privately.

Workers -- most of whom suffer from chronic respiratory ailments -- are poorly equipped for the job and have no health insurance, officials admit. The government hospital has two doctors to cater for Alang's 5,000 workers.

But according to the Ship Recycling Industries Association, the 1,400-room Blue Lady will eventually provide work to 4,000 labourers, and its machinery, furniture and antiques will give a welcome boost to Alang.

Activists, however, say the benefits brought by the ship come at a serious cost to the workers.

"Ships like the Blue Lady are hazardous -- but fires, falling from heights, explosions and asphyxiation while working in enclosed area are not the only hazards," said Dhayay Triveni, an environmentalist.

"Asbestosis is also a silent killer at Alang."

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