A global economic slowdown has hit industries ranging from automakers to investment banks, but in one small town on the western coast of India, business is at record levels and workers can hardly keep up with demand.
In Alang on the coast of Gujarat State, home to the world’s largest ship-breaking facility, the financial year to April will be one of the best ever, as a slowdown in global trade and lower freight rates mean that ships are being scrapped faster.
But there is a flip side. Activists fret that the booming business will encourage a disregard for safety and environmental guidelines, which they say ship-breakers are already flouting.
Along an 11-kilometer, or 7-mile, coastline, beached oil tankers and cargo carriers lie in various stages of disembowelment. Peculiar tide patterns that bring high tide only twice a month allow the beaching of ships right at the yards.
Men in blue overalls and hard hats, operating cranes and wielding blowtorches, hacksaws and hammers swarm over the beached ships, many condemned to a premature end because of the slowdown.
“Idle ships are a huge financial burden, so ship owners don’t have any option but to get rid of their ships, even if it means scrapping them years ahead of schedule,” said Vishnu Kumar Gupta, joint secretary at the Alang Ship Breakers Association.
Alang has received more than 125 ships in the past three months, compared with 136 in all of 2007 and 2008, Mr. Gupta said. Ship-breakers expect the total this year to reach 250.
“In the past five to six years of the boom, very few ships were scrapped, and we were working on zero margins, as there was intense competition for the few ships that were coming in,” Mr. Gupta said.
Ships were once either sunk or taken apart in the countries where they had been built, before high costs and environmental restrictions drove ship-breaking efforts elsewhere.
India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh do 80 percent of the world’s ship-breaking business. Labor activists say that is largely because labor costs are low and safety standards are lax failing to protect workers who are exposed to toxic chemicals as they dismantle the vessels.
About 150 to 200 workers can break down a 10,000-ton ship in three months, salvaging nearly every part.