alang india

This is a beach–or what used to be a beach–in Alang, India, in the state of Gujarat. Here, ships that are no longer in service go to die. The behemoths are driven in close to land at high tide, and deliberately beached. At low tide, armies of low-paid, low-skilled workers descend upon them to cut up the ships for scrap metal. Most of the ships that come here now are container ships or tankers, but passenger liners have occasionally been scrapped here, and in 2006 the French government tried to scrap a decommissioned nuclear-powered military vessel–arousing great controversy.

Alang and its waters are horribly polluted. The reason why ships are now scrapped here instead of at scrapyards in industrialized countries–the Firth of Forth in Scotland was famous for this industry–is environmental regulations. There are none in India, or at least none that are enforced. Most ships built several decades ago, the usual age for vessels now being scrapped, utilized asbestos in their construction. After being banned in most of the First World, the precautions needed to protect shipbreaking workers from disease in dealing with asbestos are more costly than most businesses wish to spend. Consequently, they outsource operations like this to developing countries, where the workers are desperate even for hazardous jobs, and where they can’t sue. The result is a toxic graveyard like Alang.

You can see it from space. Look at this close-up of oil bleeding into the water from a scrapped tanker.

oil at alang

There have been some minimal efforts to improve conditions here. The Japanese have begun investing modest amounts of money to upgrade the shipbreaking facilities at Alang. But how long will that take? And how many workers will die of easily preventable diseases and work-related accidents until that happens?

This is a very sad place. Unfortunately it’s not alone. The Indian Ocean is studded with such ship graveyards. The price of progress? I don’t think it’s that simple.

The Alang shipyards are mentioned in the Max Brooks novel World War Z, and there have been at least two documentaries produced about what goes on here.