This is a true story. I might write as if the story is amusing, which it is, never write as if it is not a serious subject, because it is. Both are true and with the tough life of ship breaking in India may be a little humour is important for the reader and for the reported.
Greenpeace have written many articles about the Alang ship yard. Compared to Bhopal, where the factory is closed, but still killing people, Alang is still breaking ships and killing people.
I had come to India with my daughter India, yes her name is India, to show her the Palitana Jain temples in the state of Gujarat; the Jain temples in the clouds – 3500 steps high above the land. It is easy to become blazay with temples, however Palitana is without doubt one of the most striking of all temples. The finest Jain temple I have visited. An equal to Ranakpur. No it is superior and healthier, because a journey to the clouds is much more rousing – tough on the calves – otherwise take a palanquin to the clouds.
I had been told since the involvement of Greenpeace Alang ship yard had been closed to all westerner’s, except off course to those selling ships. I had also overheard the area outside Alang consisted of miles of breakers yards selling everything needed to fit out a ship. Life rafts to compasses, galley fittings to engines parts, propellers to rudders. The largest ships jumble sale in the world! Yes I can assure you reader it is quite some sight.
This may all sound farfetched and doubtful; go and see for yourself the work of the women outside the prison camp who labouring to repair and clean the spare parts from the dismantled ship. Go.
At the end of the market I could see the sign “Alang Shipyard” and a clear “STOP” sign. The bent and battered pole of a barrier was fortunately up.
“India we’ll going in”. I shouted. “Keep facing forward and don’t flinch.” I knew we would be shouted at to STOP! What the hell was I going in for? Like Everest the ship yard exists and foreboding. India looked forward and did not flinch – I drove under the pole into the great big secret world of ship breaking the Indians hide from the outside world.
In my rear view mirror I watched the tubby guards running behind us huffing and puffing with gestating arms and finally giving up the run to jump onto under powered motor bikes and slowly made chase; as effective as if they had jumped onto donkeys. They were onto us! I would have to lose them.
Hay it was too easy. By the time India and I had reached the sea the sound of their screaming little donkeys was lost in the distance behind.
And what a sight beheld us! This is some sight. I am not sure if anywhere in the world holds so many of the largest ship as Alang.
Driving along the broken potted sea front road, it is difficult to remember how many ships we passed. May be 50 or 100 or may be many more. We never reached the end of the beach. At this grave yard ship are brought from all over the world to be broken. Why? Because it is cheap. Why? Firstly there is no concept of safety. Second reason is obvious.
It is report a death a day befalls on the workers of Alang. Having seen a snap shot of how the ship breaking works before our arrest, with the sheer size of the operation, the authorities, whoever they may be, must be applauded; they are doing well to keep it at one death a day.
Yes – just one death a day!
Anyway, India and I drove the beach road eagle-eyed and amazed at all kinds of ship bumped up on the beach for miles and miles. Cargo, liquid container, ferries, cruise ships, battle ships, vehicle transport ship and whatever else sails the seas with all hear on this beach with their bow run up onto the sands, their bellies still in the water.
This is an ordinary beach. Nothing more than sea lapping against a sandy beach lined with the world biggest collection, 101 specimens of beach whales.
It is an incredible sight.
Because each ship is being eaten at, each ship is covered by little human ants slowly munching the ships away from the bow to the stern. Around each ship a pool of oils darken the blue sea. Slowly toxic oils, depending on the ebb and flow of the tides, are dispersed out to sea.
“How far do we go?” India asked. It was a far question for we had driven for about 10 minutes or so. A small wall separated the beach and road had now disappeared and the sand had infringed onto the road. Looking along the beach there was no end to the hunks of ships being broken.
Other than labours milling about the beach no one worried about the two of us making our way to the water edge to stand in amazement at the line of breaking ships.
We both took pictures of the crumbling ships and the working men who had the jobs of tearing apart these once goliaths of the sea. The working men dress in nothing more than loin cloths or shorts, bare back or with greasy t-shirts, most with no footwear, some with flip flops, a few with the odd builders hat. Not a lot is it.
It was easy to see they were the labouring class. If the ship yards did not pay the grand wages of one dollar a day, then back to their villages the field worker would go.
As we photographed the working men waved at us. We waved back and took our pictures. They did seem a happy bunch, may be by just having jobs put smiles on their faces and luxuries into their villages.
And how do they die on these ships? Clearly they have no correct clothing; flip flops cannot be the regulation issue for such work. There is no scaffolding to support the working men as they dismantle the metal sheeting. The biggest killer is the work with gas wielding equipment; this is precarious work. Not only without any eye protection, as you see all over India, may be they don’t live long enough to go blind, because before blindness they will be killed by explosions caused by build-up of gas within the ships, accidently lit by their clumsy unskilled use of gas touches.
It is a tragic slight.
The foreman of this particular ship India and I were standing under did not seem unperturbed at our company. He even seemed quite flattered at our interest in his work. We made conversation with him until the two policemen on donkeys caught us up, parked and made their way across the beach, truncheons in hand, guns in their holders, and bellowing voices of their anger.
And with a little skull dugery this is where the story of India and I comes amusing.
Best way to take the heat out of an awkward situation is to smile, greet someone as a long lost friend. Offer a hand and look surprised at any anger offered and try to bluff it was a misunderstanding. It always works to bring the heat down and it did again on this occasion.
The officers shook my hand as they tore into me in Guajarati because I had ignoring the security post, the barrier and their cries of stop. I tried to explain I saw no security post, and question them about how could I drive across a barrier. I Apologised and I apologised again until the heat came down. They were still not happy and demanded our cameras. At this I protested. As they tried to wrestle the camera away I stood my ground and refused. I tried to explain we had done nothing wrong; there was no barrier to prevent us entering with a shoddy remark “ if they leave their house unlocked then expect visitors!”
The officer’s reply to this was to arrest us both, march us up the beach and take us away to some police station. Trouble was, I wanted the pictures and could see problems brewing. Fortunately I shoot in film. As I made my way up the beach with a policeman on each side, I slowly rewound the film back into the cartridge. When I stepped in my car I unfixed the back of the camera and slipped the film out. Once in the car I adjusted the seat and slipped the film under the rubber mat. One camera had been dealt with.
India sat in the front the angry policeman at the back who directing me to the police station. The other policeman following behind on his donkey; he was easy to leave behind.
“Ok India change mobiles, swap yours for the one in the centre consul. Be discreet as I chat to him.” The policeman conversation was not very forth coming, but it did distract him long enough for India to changed phones.
At the police station we were both marched up the stair to meet with the big man. We sat and waited in the hallway with our cameras close listening to two angry policemen raising their voices.
Then came our turn. The superior, behind an ageing desk, with ageing papers piled high, seemed a gentile sort of man as I offered my hand in friendship, introduced myself and my daughter and apologised about the mix up with his two donkey riders.
All he wanted was the camera, which I showed had no film and the mobile no camera. This really did cause some confusion, practically to the donkey riders. Yes I could tell their was disbelieve as if I had pulled a fast one, however I could see they were not sure how to react.
I them went onto explain to their super, making clear the pole was not down. I explained if the pole had been down, off course I would have stopped!
The superior seemed to understand and questioned the two donkey riders if this was so?
At this stage of the story it became confusing as I am not honestly sure what happen next.
There seem to be some dispute with the two donkey riders and the superior. They were clearly at odds with each other. Along the lines of why was the pole up? But I can’t be sure. We were waved away which I happy took to mean we could go.
As we reached the stair I said to India, “OK run and let’s get out of here!” We shot down the stairs into the yard into our jeep and hastily drove away.
I soon realised thus is not the two donkeys riders intention. Again in the mirror I saw them shout at us as they jumped onto their donkeys and yet again gave chase.
It was one road, with a right hand turn. How could I miss the turning? Well I did and soon I was driving around in the slum dwellings of Alang lost.
It was a sad place no one should live in. 20,000 workers do, and live in plastic sheeting homes without amenities, no different to a prison camp or as refugee camp. It is a pitiful sight to see such poverty because for whatever reason no one wants to pay for a job correctly and safely done.
India and I escaped by exiting the IN when the OUT barrier blocked our way. Most never leave except to the mortuary if such a place exists.
Fifty pence added to each ferry journey would pay for the training and equipment demanded in the west for such work. But then is fifty pence worth a life Mr P&O?
PS – BHAVNAGAR: Five persons were killed today and seven others injured when a blast triggered by a suspected gas leak took place in a ship being dismantled at the Alang ship-breaking yard in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat . “Five persons were killed while seven others sustained injuries after a fire broke out following a blast in the ship which was being dismantled in plot number 140 at the yard,” Police Sub-Inspector (PSI) K J Rathod of Marine Police Station.