Photo courtesy of Greenpeace International
We traveled to Alang, a stretch of beach on the Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat, to witness first-hand what has been described as one of the “Seven Garbage Wonders of the World.” At the moment, there are 70 large ships beached like dead whales on the sands of Alang, where they are being dismantled for the reprocessing of their valuable steel. Shipbreaking is easy on neither the environment, nor the workers.
On our way to India, during our layover in Singapore, we were fortunate to catch a fascinating documentary about Alang on National Geographic Television, called “Shipbreakers.” So when our friend Puru from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry told us that he in Alang to procure heavy-duty laundry equipment and boilers for the ashram and invited us to join him, we jumped at the opportunity. As any of you who regularly read this space already know, garbage has been one of our focuses in recent months.
Until recently, Alang was the largest shipbreaking yard in the world, hosting the destruction of as many as 120 enormous vessels at a time. All that changed two years ago, when Greenpeace blockaded the entry of a decommissioned French warship, Clemenceau, from going aground at Alang, arguing that France should not be allowed to export its environmental nightmares to the developing world. Though the French courts had rejected jurisdiction in the legal case, claiming that the military nature of the vessel created preemption, the French Ambassador to India investigated the protest, agreed with Greenpeace, and France ultimately recalled the ship.
According to traders with whom we spoke in Alang, this episode cost Alang dearly. The shipbreaking yard at Chittagong, Bangladesh has since become the highest volume venue; Gadani Beach, Pakistan and the various shipbreaking yards of China have also seen increase traffic. The economy of Alang – which relies both on the scrap steel and the salvaging of equipment from the ships, like the machines that Puru would be taking back to Pondicherry – is only now beginning to recover from the downturn.
In attempting to piece this story together from press archives, I am having difficulty understanding the direct cause-and-effect between this particular Greenpeace action and the loss of shipbreaking business from Alang to Chittagong, Gadani, or the Chinese yards. And since Greenpeace has hardly ceased its surveillance of ships destined for Alang – or any of the world’s other shipbreaking locations – it is also difficult to account for the recent up-tick in Alang’s fortunes.
Certainly, Greenpeace has been fighting a smart, effective battle against the breaking of toxic ships. Perhaps the biggest victory for its Operation Final Voyage came in 2002, when the The Council of State, The Netherland’s highest court, ruled that a chemical tanker must be thoroughly decontaminated before sending to the shipbreaking yards. I can find no satisfactory explanation, however, for why Greenpeace victories should economically damage Alang, while benefiting other shipbreaking venues.
Taking the Alang traders at their word that the activities of Greenpeace have hurt operations at Alang, there have been benefits as well. The Indian Government has created a new yard, three kilometers inland from the beach, to sort and “properly” dispose of toxic waste. Just what “proper” disposal means in the Indian context remains to be seen. The yard is not yet operational.
One consequence of the Greenpeace experience is that foreigners are no longer allowed access to the beaches of Alang, where the ship-breaking takes place. We were stopped by armed police and prohibited from traveling the final kilometer to the beach. Photography of any sort is strictly banned, whether by foreigner or Indian nationals. The Indian government, much like the Bush administration, believes that the free exchange of information may be good for democracy in general, but is dangerous to its specific objectives and methods.
I am thus sad to report that we have no news or photographs to offer from this remarkable place, which distills in a most dramatic way the complex moral and economic issues of the world’s garbage problem. Perhaps we will return, armed with permissions from officials in Delhi, to tell some of the stories of the shipbreakers and Alang.