The shipbreakers have a special prayer that they dedicate to the goddess Kali in the place where they live— the place where ships go to die. It’s the biggest ship graveyard in the world and men travel there from all over India leaving their impoverished towns and villages in search for hope.
In Alang close to 40,000 men tear apart some of the world’s largest ships with their bare hands. This is the biggest recycling operation and the probably the biggest environmental disaster. The men work under precarious conditions and the job that might kill them is also their only hope of survival.
For a captain, having to beach a ship brings up mixed emotions. After many decades at sea, it’s time to let her rest. The grief is almost as if it’s a family member or dear friend that has died and whose organs will be donated so he or she can live on in somebody else’s body.
A few decades ago, Alang was a pristine shore that very few people had heard of and shipbreaking was done from dry docks in Europe, The US and Canada. But then labor costs got out of hand and environmental regulators shut down the operations. So in the 1980s Indian entrepreneurs seized the opportunity. Alang was perfect because its high tide would drag even the super tankers on to the shore and wedge them in the sand.
Still, the conditions of the workers and the environment continue to be two of the biggest issues, because although the owners make a lot of money, the workers are lacking basic security equipment. The risk of accidents is only surpassed by the threat of cancer. It is believed that one in four workers will die from inhaling the acrid fumes at the furnaces used to melt chunks of metal.
The ships being scrapped today were built in the 1970s, long before it was discovered that asbestos and PCBs were banned. The paints on the ships also contain heavy metals and some ships carried radioactive material. These substances are released with every cut.
The towns surrounding Alang has become the perfect spot for the disenfranchised to settle. The money generated from the shipyard is supposed to feed at least a million mouths. Once an area that existed on agriculture for centuries, it has now become dependent on a completely different industry.