Veraval and Alang: The Gujarat towns where ships are scrapped

Separated by about 250km of the Gujarat coast are Veraval and Alang, where ships are built painstakingly by hand, and ageing ones stripped for scrap

Salil Tripathi
First Published2 Jun 2024, 07:30 AM IST
The Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.
The Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.(AFP)

The town of Veraval, not far from the holy city of Somnath, is where many boats are born. Boat-making workshops employ thousands of people here. The day I visited, the harbour presented a chaotic and colourful image of naked boats with fluttering flags. Once painted and ready, they’d go out to the sea to catch fish, and during the ferocious monsoon, be brought to shelter, to rest, be repaired, and repainted. When I went to Veraval, the harbour was cluttered with dozens of boats with colourful flags and buntings. Jetties stretched into the sea and the sails of the large boats flapped gaily in the August breeze, the constant clatter providing a musical murmur.

Gujarat’s folklore brims with stories of poor young men turning up on the coast, looking at the boats, wistfully yearning to get on one and travel far and wide: to Melaka and Java in the east; to Aden to the immediate west; to Socotra in the Arabian Sea; to Mombasa and Dar-es-Salam in Africa. Known as kharvas, sarangs and malams, these young men kept commerce and trade alive in the triangle between India’s west coast, the Middle East and East Africa. Many of these boats, also called dhows, would end their lives on this coast too, as they’d come to be broken up in Alang, along with mightier beasts made of iron.

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In 2013, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, from the Mumbai-based artists’ collective CAMP, began documenting the lives of Kachchhi sailors in India, Sindh and Balochistan in Pakistan, and southern Iran, and followed them on their voyages to Sharjah and Dubai. “A boat has many powers: to gather a society in the making, to distribute goods, to carry people and ideas across places that, it seems to us, are more different than ever before,” CAMP said, in describing the film that took four years to make. Kutchi Vahan Pani Vala (2013; Gulf to Gulf to Gulf) is an engrossing film that captures the timelessness and borderlessness of the sailing life. These men took all sorts of cargo to many ports, from medical equipment and electronic goods to goats.

Sailors shot the film on their mobile phones, with artists acting as editors. The film, described by The New York Times as “beautiful and buoyant”, is a moving celebration of lives that may seem outwardly dull and featureless, but which are inherently dramatic. We learn from the sailors’ loneliness their yearning for their families, with spectacular visuals, including unexpected sightings of dolphins and gathering storms. The film pulsates with the beat of the unifying language of the sailors from different countries: the music of Hindi films, the beat of Pakistani songs, and some hymns.

I was in Veraval during the monsoon and the sea was rough and the boats were not going anywhere. Beyond the quays were buildings with high walls which could not conceal the large thudding sounds of hammering and sawing. Master craftsmen had made drawings, and workmen were crafting them, proud of building massive boats without using a single power tool. Weeks later, the boats emerged, put together plank by wooden plank.

When I last visited Veraval, some 16,000 boats were registered in Veraval and Mangrol, about 40km away. Three-quarters of them are made of wood, and the workmen took great pride in their handiwork. At the tea shop, the owner told me that there were two boats for every berth at the port.

After the terrorist attacks that rocked Mumbai in 2008, when Lashkar-e-Taiba militants travelled by sea and stormed its iconic hotels, the main railway station, and a Jewish home, India cracked down on the coast, and re-examined the licences of the boat owners. Gujarati businessmen have never enjoyed paperwork, and they quickly figured out a workaround, by commissioning new boats but carrying forward the registration of older boats—giving the same identity to a boat which now had a younger, stronger body. In effect, reincarnating it. And sometimes, two boats with identical paperwork might operate at the same time. Gujarati businessmen knew how to keep two books of accounts; maintaining two boats with the same numbers wasn’t so hard for them.

A graveyard for ships

Later that month, I went to another town, where ships come to die.

About 50km south of Bhavnagar on the Saurashtra coast is the final resting spot of nearly half of the world’s creaking, ageing, rusty ships. Facing the Gulf of Khambhat, across the petrochemical township of Hazira, is the town of Alang, one of the world’s largest graveyards for ships. As you drive from Bhavnagar to Alang, the landscape changes, with the roadside full of traders spreading out the wares acquired from torn-down ships—machinery, furniture, anchors and rods. Traders from across India can be seen here, and the road takes the look of a bazaar.

Tax regimes have made it expedient for ships to be registered in countries that offer flags of convenience, including Liberia and Panama. And environmental laws in the West have made it impossible for those ships to be dismantled in rich countries. To that, add higher labour costs in the West. After a quarter of a century, ships become more expensive to maintain or run, and the only efficient way to dispose of them is by breaking them up and making some money out of the scrap. The boom in global trade has meant that shipping is a highly competitive, low-margin industry.

European and American shipbreaking sites began to close in the 1970s with rising labour costs, and the business went to East Asia. As East Asian economies prospered and demand for their exports increased, they wanted to use the limited capacity of their shipyards for ships that carried goods for trade, instead of performing the ships’ funeral rites. India (and later Pakistani and Bangladeshi businesses) seized the opportunity, making South Asia the world’s hub for breaking ships. South Asia’s competitive advantage was its vast labour pool, where large chunks of ships could be torn apart by hand, instead of using expensive capital equipment and machinery.

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Environmental groups in the West are appalled by the pollution and trade unions are angry about low wages and safety, but Alang performs an important task for the global economy. The global unions’ concern is valid. Workers suffer injuries from falls, burns and exposure to toxic materials. Fatalities occur, and are often undercounted. According to one news report in The Hindu, in 20 years ending in 2013, 470 workers had died breaking the ships. A 2003 Greenpeace report, Playing Hide and Seek, estimated far more deaths, at 365 a year.

The human cost of shipbreaking

A Pulitzer Prize winning expose in the Baltimore Sun in 1997 fixed global attention on the underbelly of the industry and the human costs it imposed on poorer countries. Sebastiao Salgado, the renowned Brazilian photographer, captured haunting images in Bangladesh (where ships are broken in Cox’s Bazaar), which led to enraged groups like Greenpeace initiating a campaign targeting international shipping lines.

Indian shipbreakers’ associations have vigorously defended the industry, saying that western organisations are running a campaign to keep India poor and draw jobs away, and that the situation is not as dire as the campaigners have made it out to be.

Gujarat encouraged shipbreaking in Alang in 1983, and that year, five ships were broken. Business grew in the 1990s, even though it was unpleasant and not consistent with international safety standards. Today, the vast majority of the world’s ships are ripped apart in South Asia, and Alang is the market leader. The ships yield low-quality steel which has a ready market for makers of cheap construction material. Noisy, hot re-rolling mills in nearby cities like Bhavnagar turn the metallic monoliths into reinforcing bars.

The work itself is complex, dangerous and requires skill. The ship must stand firm; good oil must be separated from sludge and filled in barrels for sale; the sludge needs to be burned; the empty tanks must be ventilated so that noxious vapours leave and do not catch fire; furniture and other items of some value, like plumbing equipment and the ships’ bells (which are in demand in temples), are carefully extricated before blunt force is applied. The engine is removed, and after the flat exterior collapses, it is carved up.

A polluting business

There is deep distrust of foreigners for fear that they are environmentalists visiting to campaign against their work. When journalist William Langewiesche went to Alang in 2000 to report for The Atlantic, the son of a shipyard owner asked him to take a question back to the western NGOs which were clamouring to shut down the polluting business: What should the Indian workers do—die of starvation or pollution?

Alang beach is about 10km long. It is oily and smoky; you can smell the pollution as you get closer, and your eyes get watery. Thousands of men are at work with crowbars and sledge hammers, tearing apart nearly half of the world’s unusable ships. Most of the workers have come from poorer Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa.

The shoreline looks ghastly and post-apocalyptic, with vast carcasses of ships and the debris scattered. At a given time, there may be dozens ships or more waiting to be dismantled at the many shipyards dotting the coastline, although Alang’s share has fallen due to increased competition. The ships come at all hours, navigated expertly by port officers. They slow their speed once they are near the shore, before coming to a halt. Soon, the vessel would no longer resemble a ship; it would be a mass of scrap metal, like a dinosaur’s skeleton, the bones jutting out skywards. Trucks wait hungrily, ready to pick up the scrap. The acrid smell persists.

Creation, preservation, destruction–the Hindu trinity—is at play here on the coast Gujarat. The cycle of life continues; for the Gujarati businesses, it is the cycle of money.

Salil Tripathi is a writer and human rights advocate whose forthcoming book The Gujaratis will be published by Aleph.

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First Published:2 Jun 2024, 07:30 AM IST
HomeLoungeideasVeraval and Alang: The Gujarat towns where ships are scrapped

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