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The health crisis in India’s shipyards

Shipwrecking on Alang Beach in March 2017. Image credit: By Planet Labs, Inc. [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
India’s vast shipyards rake in nearly a billion dollars a year for the country. Here, decommissioned ships are sent from across the globe to be broken down for parts or scrapped. However, is this industry built at the expense of the health and lives of its workers?

Alang-Sosiya in Gujarat is the largest of these shipyards. Around thirty to forty percent of the world’s ships are broken down there. A large portion of the workforce are low-wage workers.

Criticism of the industry is rife, with some describing the practice of performing ship dismantling in low-middle income countries as “toxic colonialism”. The claim is not without backing. The practice — if not performed under tightly regulated conditions — can be catastrophic to the local environment, as well as dangerous to the health of workers.

“Accidents are commonplace, with many being maimed or killed”

Accidents are commonplace, with many being maimed or killed at the shipyards. Such cases have brought about legal proceedings against Zodiac, a company which has sent numerous ships to Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani shipyards.

UK law firm Leigh Day is suing Zodiac for negligence. They claim that the company has wilfully ignored the potential risk to life involved with the dismantling of the ships they send to the three countries.

Environmentalists have mounted their own concerns. They say that companies are shielding themselves from responsibility by selling the ships off to cash buyers, after which the ship is no longer their responsibility. Following purchase by cash buyers these ships are more likely to be scrapped on Asian beaches at low standard and dangerous shipyards than they are to be sent to higher standard recycling centres.

Aside from the risk of death or injury by an accident, there is also the risk of illness associated with the ships. Foremost among these is asbestosis. Many of the ships are old and lined with asbestos. Taking these ships apart without adequate safety precautions or information regarding safe handling of asbestos can result in workers inhaling particles.

The inhalation of asbestos is dangerous for the lungs. Fine particles can cause scarring of the lungs, referred to as pulmonary fibrosis. Scarring of the lungs can cause problems breathing which can steadily become worse over years of exposure. Long term exposure to asbestos can result in an increased risk of cancer. Often symptoms will not present themselves for many years after exposure.

Infectious diseases can also be spread quickly within an environment where many people are often working in cramped conditions. In the interior of a ship this can be a cause for concern as any person carrying a disease such as tuberculosis may pass it to many others via coughs and sneezes.

The industry in India may be slowly shifting to higher standards says Nikos Mikelis, a non-executive director of GMS. “Japan and India are investing $100m in upgrades. Forty-one yards out of 120 in Alang, India, now meet HKC standards and 15 others are moving towards safer and cleaner work.”

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