Where the world’s ships go to die
Alang, India // The container ship MV Justus, built in 1995 by Polish shipyard Gdynia Stocznia, spent most of its 19 years plying the seas with a European pedigree. But like a growing number of ageing vessels, the MV Justus changed its nationality only months before being taken out of service. In doing so, it avoided a late 2013 measure by the European Union that banned ships registered in its 28 member nations from using dangerous tidal beaches for ship demolition work.
The ship changed its flag in July to that of the tiny Caribbean nation of St Kitts. Then, after starting a journey from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands on July 15 and sailing through Port Said and Dubai, it ended up on August 17 near Bhavnagar, off the coast of the Indian state of Gujarat — defying a year-old restriction from the EU.
On August 28, now under an owner called Malwi Ship Breaking, according to Indian government data, the MV Justus docked at Alang, the ofttimes dangerous yard where the world’s ships go to die. True to form, about a month later a worker was killed when he fell from a high ladder while breaking up the vessel. Another was severely injured.
The ship was first owned by a German ship fund run by Hamburg-based asset manager König & Cie. A spokesman said the ship had declared insolvency. “The sale for scrap was entirely in the hand of the [insolvency] administrator and the financing bank,” he said, and König & Cie was not involved in the ship’s flag change.
Low taxes, cheap labour, and tides that allow ships to be easily beached for demolition have made Alang a prime site for shipbreaking.
Alang’s 11-kilometre stretch of land has become the world’s largest yard for shipbreaking, the dirty, deadly work of tearing apart massive vessels so that their steel and scrap can be sold or junked.
Despite the EU ban, European ships keep coming to Alang. Some change their registrations, or flags, to countries without such rules just before reaching Indian waters. “There are special kinds of flags” valid for a few months that don’t require an operator to set up shop in the issuing nation, says Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of Brussels-based Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human rights, and labour rights organisations. These flags are “particularly cheap for a last voyage,” she says.
Besides St Kitts, the flags come from such places as Comoros, Nevis, and Tuvalu, Ms Heidegger says. Although it could be used by shipowners to sidestep current EU regulations, the process of changing registration is not illegal.
Nitin Kanakiya, the secretary of India’s Ship Recycling Industries Association, says many owners register their ships in such havens as the Bahamas, Liberia, and St Vincent for their stricter privacy laws, not in attempts to escape safety rules.
In Alang, barefoot workers manually break up ships, exposing themselves to toxins including asbestos and lead. As workers without protective gear toiled on one hulk recently, explosive gas cylinders scavenged from other dying vessels lay about nearby. “This is not shipbreaking, this is international hazardous waste trade,” says Gopal Krishna, founder of ToxicsWatch Alliance. “This is transfer of toxics from developed nations to a developing nation.”
In 2014 as many as 181 European ships were beached in Alang, says Shipbreaking Platform, which compiles the data from ship buyers, other non-profit, and maritime databases. As many as 27 of them changed flags before entering Indian waters, it says. Ships entering India included oil and chemical tankers, according to Gujarat government data.
Fatal accidents are common in Alang. One morning last June, five workers were breaking up a chemical tanker when a blast near the ship’s engine room killed them. Two weeks later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi halved the tax on ships imported to be broken up, potentially boosting the $2 billion (Dh544 million) industry that killed at least 21 workers in 2014.
More than 130 shipbreakers operate at Alang, monitored by 12 safety inspectors. The EU requires that shipbreakers use gear such as cranes and provide medical care for workers. But Indian companies say their safety standards are adequate. “We have our own safety mechanism in place, which is good enough,” says Kanakiya of India’s ship recycling association. “What the EU demands is completely unnecessary, and that will involve a lot of capital spending, which can make us economically unviable.”
The Federation of Ship Recycling Associations, a group of ship recyclers from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, will meet in Singapore in March to jointly oppose the EU ban, it said in a statement.
Updated: February 15, 2015 04:00 AM