If you're planning your next vacation, you probably won't find Alang in any travel guides. You may not even find it on the map. This desolate six-mile stretch of land was once one of the most impoverished areas in India. But, in recent years, this piece of the Indian coastline in Gurajat state has become the world's largest shipbreaking yard.
Alang, 185 miles (298 kilometers) northwest of Bombay, serves as the final stop for about half of the world's maritime vessels [source: Burns]. Alang is literally a graveyard for ships -- the world's once most powerful ships come here to die. Shipbreaking is just what it sounds like. Piece by piece, workers use basic tools to dismantle ships that are too old or too costly to maintain.
But why choose this remote spot to serve as the final destination for so many of the world's obsolete ships? For one, Alang's beachfront location is ideal for shipbreaking. Tides are heavy there, and the natural slope of the beach makes it easy for a ship to be run on shore.
Most importantly, Alang supplies the shipbreaking industry with an abundant source of laborers who are willing to work for low wages in risky, and sometimes life-threatening, business. What's more, India's environmental and safety standards are much more lenient than those of its customers, like Japan, Korea, Russia, Germany and the United States.
These far-reaching issues spark questions facing the global community. Are developed nations taking advantage of developing countries by sending their trash to those ill-equipped to deal with it? Or are developed nations providing developing regions with an economic stimulus that, although potentially dangerous to workers, gives wages to those who would starve otherwise? Could the debate be far more complex than either of these positions?
To look for answers to these questions, let's begin by learning more about how shipbreaking and ship recycling became a booming business at Alang, India.
Why Is There an Alang Shipyard?
Shipbreaking was predominately performed in the United States and Europe until the 1970s, but the high cost of labor and environmental regulations eventually caused the industry to move to places such as Korea and Taiwan. As these countries became more economically developed, they soon began to move away from the dangerous business of shipbreaking, too. Alang traces its roots to the 1980s, when India took the industry by storm.
One reason the shipbreaking industry flourished at Alang is because Indian shipbreakers don't use high-tech equipment or docks. Instead, Indian businessmen take a step back in time -- they haul ships to shore and then dismantle them by hand. A person, company or government sells its ship to one of the Alang shipbreakers, and the shipbreaker reels in profit from recycling materials from the ship. Consistent with the graveyard-like atmosphere of Alang, individuals or companies own plots in the huge salvage yard where they dismantle ships. Approximately 180 shipbreakers own plots at Alang [source: Zubrzycki]. On any given day, 200 ships stand on the beach in various stages of dissection [source: Langewiesche].
But why are powerful and expensive ships dismantled in the first place? Once they hit a certain age -- usually around 25 -- they become too costly to operate. Think of it as an old car that constantly needs repair. It costs at least $20,000 a year to maintain the smallest inactive military vessel. Storing two old battleships can cost $1.5 million a year. Some ships are in such a state of disrepair that to fix them up and dry dock them would cost at least $1 million [source: Langewiesche].
The cheapest way to dispose of ships is to take them apart and sell the pieces for scrap metal and reusable parts. It's like selling your jalopy to the junkyard. Instead of paying to get rid of old ships, owners sell them to a global scrap market, like Alang. Ships can bring in lots of money in scrap steel -- it's not unusual for a cargo ship to bring in a million dollars in steel alone [source: Langewiesche]. In 1998, 347 ships were scrapped at Alang, netting $133 million in profit [source: Burns].
Although most of the profit in shipbreaking comes from steel, shipbreakers let nothing go to waste. Many shantytowns have developed around Alang, with shops specializing in everything from refrigeration equipment to appliances to interior décor salvaged from ships.
How do you go about dismantling an enormous ocean liner? On the next page, you'll learn how workers at Alang do their jobs.
How Are Ships Dismantled?
Shipbreakers go back to basics when scrapping a vessel. A ship bound for its final destination rides into Alang on the tide. The front of the ship hits the shore, and the ship slowly lurches forward onto the beach until it stops. Anchors drop, the engine stops, and power is cut off.
Workers shackle the ship to the ground, then use basic chains, cables and diesel machines to bring the ship farther up on the beach. The chains and cables pull extremely taut and sometimes even snap back, placing workers in enormous danger. This is one of the many risks that shipbreakers take.
Before dismantling the ship, workers empty the fuel tanks to prevent explosions. The crew must show the Gurajat official overseeing the site that the fuel tank is empty before proceeding with the scrapping. Scrappers then walk through the ship to find anything that can be salvaged for resale -- anything from flags and ship's logs to liquor and narcotics [source: Langewiesche]. They also strip the valuable plumbing, wiring and electronics from the ship. Businesses from all over India come to Alang's shantytowns to look for bargain-priced scraps.
After shipbreakers finish the initial scrapping, the real destruction begins. The shipboard supervisor walks through and inspects the ship to determine the best course of action. There's really no science or set-in-stone process for dismantling a ship. Years of experience and careful observation help the shipboard supervisor understand the anatomy of the ship and the best course of action for each project.
After the captain's walk-through, demolition begins. In a slow and clean sweep, workers use torches, sledgehammers and sheer elbow grease to scrap the ship. It takes anywhere from two weeks to a year to dismantle a ship.
Who takes on this backbreaking and dangerous task? Take a look into an Alang shipbreaker's workday.
Who Works at Alang?
About 40,000 people work at Alang. An additional 200,000 people work in businesses connected to Alang [source: Langewiesche]. Most live in shantytowns surrounding the shipyard with limited sanitation and no electricity. Many of the men and teenagers working at Alang come from impoverished northern states of India such as Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Their workday begins at around 7:00 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. and doesn't end until 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. For their work, shipbreakers at Alang earn between $1 and $2 a day.
In addition to the accidents and explosions that might occur when dismantling a ship, workers are exposed to asbestos and chemicals found on older ships. Aside from health hazards directly related to shipbreaking, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are problems among Alang workers. Men working at Alang leave their families back at home and prostitution abounds in the shantytowns surrounding shipyards.
Given the dangerous conditions, long work hours and low pay at Alang, why do people want to work there in the first place? Although some people say that Alang is a dangerous place to work, its workers are actually some of the most highly-paid unskilled laborers in India [Source: Zubrzycki]. By some standards, Alang's conditions are relatively good. They're far better than the conditions of some other shipbreaking yards. For example, shipbreakers in Bangladesh, a market in competition with Indian shipyards like Alang, are paid lower wages with even fewer safety and environmental regulations. For many of Alang's workers, the choice is to work at Alang for little money and under hazardous conditions or to go home and starve.
Let's see what other people are saying about the conditions surrounding Alang and the shipbreaking industry.
Many hot-button issues facing the global community today come together in Alang -- environmental concerns, human rights issues and questions regarding how to integrate the developing nations into the global economy in a sustainable and equitable way.
Critics argue that the Alang Shipyard represents the very worst of globalization -- developed nations sending garbage to developing nations. By sending potentially hazardous waste to countries without the means to manage it, developed nations take financial advantage of desperate laborers, according to critics.
However, some businessmen from India argue that it's unfair when Westerners impose their own standards on Alang's industry. By the nature of its specific economic and social conditions, Alang simply can't maintain these standards. Relatively speaking, they say, conditions there aren't as bad as at other industrial sites in the country. And those Westerners who oppose shipbreaking in their communities would rather see this job done anywhere but in their own backyards [source: Knickerbocker].
Still others, such as workers in North America who have lost their jobs due to offshoring, prefer to bring shipbreaking back home [source: Gallob]. Some American businessmen are working to keep at least a portion of the ship recycling industry in the United States [source: Stewart].
In addition to these globalization issues, environmental hazards at Alang have prompted uproar from some Western environmentalist groups. A major reason for sending ships to Alang is that American and European environmental standards were much higher, and by extension far more costly, than those of India. So, what is considered unsafe in the West is sent to India for disposal. Yet others -- even in the West -- would argue that isolating potentially toxic ship parts to one remote location serves the greater good [source: Knickerbocker].
Alang's advocates, including workers themselves, argue that without the shipbreaking industry, nearly 40,000 people and their families would have no income.
With so many issues, there are lots of opinions about Alang and the shipbreaking industry. Find out how some governments and environmental advocacy groups have responded to Alang.
Response to Alang
Responses from the international community have ignited change in the shipbreaking industry. Much of the uproar surrounding Alang began in 1996 when Baltimore Sun reporter Will Englund reported on shipbreaking. The issue of shipbreaking was of particular interest to his audience because Baltimore's once-thriving shipping industry had been slowly but surely exported abroad. Englund saw a ship owned by the U.S. Navy being dismantled in the harbor and soon learned about the legal, economic and environmental mess that surrounded the project. The Sun's editor decided to pursue the subject of shipbreaking full force.
What followed was an investigation into Alang, where most of the Navy's ships would be bound if a long-standing EPA export ban was lifted. Shocked by the conditions they found there, Englund, joined by investigative reporter Gary Cohn, published the Alang story in December of 1997. Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski launched a Senate investigation into Alang and the U.S. Navy's conduct. She called for the export ban to stay in place, and the Senate investigation brought national attention to what was seen as the Western world exploiting and polluting Alang.
Soon after the many people in America were introduced to the conditions at Alang, Northern Europe began to call for large-scale reform in shipbreaking. Images of Alang prompted some middle-class Europeans to view their own industries as contributing to developing nations' misery. Greenpeace in Amsterdam viewed Alang as the perfect symbol of international exploitation and launched an international campaign directed at Alang to change world shipbreaking standards. As a result, the European Union and the International Maritime Organization based in London have begun to regulate the sale of ships to Alang.
Alang continues to be a source of controversy and probably will be for a long time to come. As long as developing nations require industry to grow their economies and developed nations also benefit, Alang and similar shipbreaking yards will continue to provide final resting places for many of the world's ships.
For more information on the Alang Shipyard, shipbreaking and other related topics, explore the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Burns, John F. "On an Indian Shore Where Ships Go to Die, Profit is Law." The New York Times. August 9, 1998.
- Langewiesche, William. "The Shipbreakers." Atlantic Monthly. Volume 286: Issue 2. August, 2000.
- Morais, Richard C. "The Shipbreakers' Ball." Forbes. Volume 161. Issue 5. March, 1998.
- Greenpeace. Shipbreaking. http://www.greenpeaceweb.org/shipbreak/india.asp
- Saffo, Paul. "End of the Line" Wired. August 8, 2000.
- Zubrzycki, John. "Recycling the World's Once-Mighty Ships. Christian Science Monitor. Volume 90: Issue 148. June, 1998.