PUCL Bulletin, 2003

In the face of death
The working condition of the migrant worker at Alang Sosiya shipbreaking yard (ASSBY), GVujarat

-- By Dwarik Nath Rath
( Secretary, Socialist Unity Centre
of India, Gujarat State Organizing Committee. Member of PUCL, Gujarat, an activist, and presently fighting for the cause of the Migrants and power loom Workers in Surat)

In the last three months time 13 people died in Alang Shipyard and many more were injured. The deaths in Alang Shipyard and its frequent reporting in press highlight the problems of the shipyard. Many questions about the functioning of Alang Shipyard raised but are left out again in the space of time.

This time, The Times of India in its continuous reports tried to highlight the gruesome incidents of death but the Government has not risen to the occasion to protect the migrant workers from fatal death.

The Alang Shipyard incident raises the following questions :

  1. Safety norms
  2. Plight of the migrant workers
  3. And violation of all acts

We all know that due to uneven development of economy in Capitalism, thousands of people from different parts of India are moving hither and thither in search of livelihood. Just to earn their bread they are ready to work under any condition. Compelled by their situation they have no choice but to choose whatever work they get. They don’t hesitate to work even in the face of death. The profit seeking contractors,businessmen suck them. Such is the state of affair of migrant labourers throughout the country.

The prevalent Inter State Migrant Workers Act( ISMWA) is never operational to protect the migrants Minimum Wage Act, Factory Act, Contract Labour Act etc are not implemented. All laws are flouted with the knowledge of the authority sitting in the Government.

It is not a matter of concern for the home States like Orissa , UP, Bihar from where the workers migrate to Gujarat. These States are virtually relieved of the growing rural as well as urban unemployed in their own States. Inspite of the social in-equilibrium the respective States never care for the quantum of migration from their States. Thousands of salt workers died in last Kandla cyclone in Gujarat . Hundreds more died in Reliance refinery factory in Jamnagar and no compensation was paid to the families of the deceased, as per the UN declaration on Migrant workers. An exercise was made to reduce the number of deaths and the rest were not even declared as missing. The respective State Govts. did not care to come forward to help the families of the deceased. The Govt officials of these States made a routine visit to Gujarat which are usually pleasure trips just to declare every thing was okay with mutual consent of the Guest State i.e. Gujarat.

This has been the practice for years. A legislature team from Orissa visited Gujarat to study the condition of Oriya Workers. Regrettably they were more interested in sight seeing and public receptions than to meet the workers or to speak on their behalf to the Govt. of Gujarat. The pleading of the author to take up the case of murdered workers in broad day light at Surat was just ignored. Returning back they did not highlight the plight of Oriya workers in Gujarat in Orissa Assembly. Such is the height of indifference of the Ruling as well as the opposition parties. In case of accidental deaths there is all likelihood that the families of the deceased workers get adequate compensation. There is no Trade Union to guard the interest of the workers. Registering any protest against the contractor means risking the job. So the migrants know only one thing and that is to earn and keep earning so long he is alive. There is no point of return. They know that no one is going to help them out, neither the Gujarat Govt nor the Govts of their respective States or any organisation. They think it is their fate accomplice. The tragedy is they are no longer welcomed in their families and natives for a longer time.

Their overstay at home scare the members of the families They have to return back to Alang and send money back home. Their hopeless condition has pushed them in to a very tragic vicious cycle. The Alang-Sosiya Ship-Breaking Yard (ASSBY) located in the Gulf of Cambay in the Bhavnagar District of Gujarat State in India is the biggest ship-breaking yard in Asia employing more than 30 thousand workers. There are around ten villages in the vicinity of ASSBY. They are Alang, Sosiya, Manar, Sathara, Kathwa, Bharapara, Mathavada, Takhatgadh (chopda), Jasapara and Mandva in 12 KM vicinity of sea coast. Conflict and amity is an usual phenomenon of the migrants with the locals. But segregation compel most of the migrants to stay in mushrooming slums which is humanly inhabitable in normal condition. With no readily available hospital facilities these workers are constantly exposed to hazardous condition – spurious, poisonous gas can play havoc any time. Few stay in rented houses in different villages. The locals are content with small and medium business due to ASSBY. 99% migrants are engaged in ship breaking in comparison to less than.1% local people.

The migrants, mostly from Orissa, Bihar, U.P., Maharashtra are very laborious so the ship breakers prefer migrants in ship breaking more than the local people.

This preference is a very normal practice in Gujarat including in power loom sector at Surat, Salt factory at Kandla etc.

There are 178 plots in ASSBY that dismantle more than 2.5 million tons of material round the year and where 30 ships can be broken in a month with an annual turnover of 3,500 crore. There are 2 departments to look after this work – one is Gujarat Maritime Board(GMB) and another is Controller of Explosion (CoE).For breaking ship no- objection certificate is issued by GMB and cleaning certificate is issued by CoE. We quote from the Times of India report published on 22.05.03 by Amit Mukherji.

Rules broken
“Serious doubts are being raised over the way no objection certificates are doled out by regulating agencies like the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB) and the Controller of Explosion (CoE).----Though the GMB authorities continue to blame ship-owners after every mishaps, it is the system failure which is the root cause.---there is hardly any accountability on the part of various agencies that issue clearance certificates to ensure safety of workers. Incase of “Inville”, authorities had issued safety clearance certifying the ship was fit for breaking .The Controller of Explosion had granted the “man entry”, “gas free “and “hot work” approval certificate before dismantling commenced. Despite CoE clearance presence of hydrocarbon and gases in the interior of Inville”was detected.” It is surprising how the certificates were granted there are ample traces of gases, Sulpher, furnace oil and other materials, which can wreak havoc if exposed to heat. ”Said an official of Forensic Science Laboratory. While GMB officer in charge ----admits “probably there are lot of areas which are ignored. ”And with Coe having it’s office in Vadodara, functioning often becomes difficult .Sources reveal that certificates are granted on mere verbal assurance and without any physical inspection. .Ship-owners often do not wait for all clearances certificates, says sources .

With the prices of steel the prime extract from the ship, varying on day to day basis, ship breakers often flout norms to sell off the scrap when prices go up .Some times , even ship breaking guide lines are ignored and interiors of the ship, which are normally broken down at the end of the operation, are dismantled earlier as there is good market for these products. This endangers the lives of the labourers as they work in suffocating and unventilated compartments, amidst hazardous gases. The role of GMB in granting certificates is also being questioned. Even after a ship breaker obtains certificates from the Coe, it is the duty of the GMB to verify them before the final go ahead is granted. And the GMB has just a chief officer and three safety supervisors who are expected to completely survey the ship. “ There could be slip-ups which come to light only after mishaps” admits Captain Deukar Of the three safety supervisors , only one is permanent employee, the others being on contract”. This very Report exposes serious loopholes.

The working conditions in a ship breaking yard treat life cheaper than steel. As quoted in the Times of India dated 23.05.03, “Taking cognizance of frequen deaths at the yard due to lack of safety measures Gujarat High Court has directed the state government in 1997 with a legal framework to regulate the ship breaking activities. The ‘ship recycling yard regulation’ – popularly known as Alang regulation. The new legal framework was put in place by enshrining it in the state government Gazette in August 2000.However, vested interests view it as an infringement on free activity that has been carried out in absence of safety measures. Hence, the Alang Act was never implemented”.

The nexus of Government officials, contractors and businessmen operating in that area ensure that the workers are not registered, do not get identity card by the employers, no information of working condition, false name are entered in the log book to evade legal compensation in any eventuality.

State Governments like Bihar, Orissa, U.P., where most of the migrants come from do not pay any serious attention to protect the workers according to the rules and regulations. In absence of rules regarding working conditions many more deaths will occur in coming days. Even in the face of death helpless workers will continue to work. Under these circumstances it is high time for the intervention of higher authorities in the administration, government, civil liberties organization, labour organizations to come forward and take up the issue.

Often media highlight the problems of Alang. But the authority has never paid any serious attention. A survey was conducted in 1999 by Bhavnagar University. Out of 361 workers 14 face accident, 11 suffer from burn, 14 from injuries. Only 10 wear helmets, 1 has the glove, and 3 use welding glasses, 32 receive informal training, whereas the rest are untrained. So the crude and obsolete technology is the backbone of the ship breaking enterprises .GMB is only interested in revenue collection without much liability for the workers. Profit maximization is the main Mantra of the Govt. by reducing the cost of shipbreaking. Though the Gujarat Govt is earning Rupees 3200 cores annually from the ship breaking, the Govt.is not organising ship breaking as an industry. It is not updating and improving the ship breaking technology to make it environmentally friendly and is ignoring the Safety aspects. Ironically 5th June is the environmental day and the

GMB has come out with big advertisements in media about their achievements.

Under all these circumstances the following measures should be taken in ASSBY

All kind of safety measures be taken to avoid accidents and deaths:

  • Ship breaking should be considered as an Industry and covered under Factory Act and various provisions for safety as per Factory Act be followed.

  • Safety consciousness as a Culture be developed.

  • Ship breaking be updated with improved technology.

  • All workers be given primary training about ship breaking and be provided with safety kitscompulsorily.

  • GMB should be made responsible for all lapses and responsible officials be punished for all lapses.

  • The workers should be given Identity Card, appointment Card by the employers and Labour Dept.

  • should follow strict vigilance in this regard.

  • Interstate Migrant Workers Act be applied which ensures accommodation, medical facilities, traveling allowances.

  • Human Right of all migrant workers and members of their families be protected as per the UN CONVENTION ON THE PROTECTION OF THE MIGRANT WORKERS AND MEMBERS OF THEIR FAMILIES.

  • Ship breaking can only be after decontamination of the hazardous substance.

  • A mandatory rule be framed to compel the owners of the ship to clean their ships before exporting them and ensure that tanks are gas free for hot work.

  • A full fledged Fire fighting unit with adequate number of trained fire fighters be kept ready round the clock.

  • Eight hour working norms with weekly paid holidays should be introduced.

  • A well equipped hospital specially to take care of accidents of the workers be instituted.

  • Adequate death compensation to the members of the families be paid with out any administrative hurdles.

  • Planned accommodation for the workers be made.

  • Long term plan for infrastructure e.g. road , housing, drainage, water, electricity be taken up along with social infrastructure like schools, hospitals etc.

  • Attention be paid to save marine ecology, and ecology imbalance be guarded.

  • Safe guard be taken because of social segregation of the migrants due to cultural divide.

  • The Labour Dept of Gujarat as well as the Labour depts. States from where the migration takes place must guard the interest of the migrants and their working conditions

  • The Human Rights Groups and Joint Parliamentary teams be allowed to visit the ASSBY and their recommendations be mandatory for the GMB and the Govt of Gujarat.

  • A complain Secret Cell be instituted where the workers can complain fearlessly and get redressal without being sacked from the job.

  • The State from where migration takes place must keep the record of the workers, make routine enquiry about the migrants, and place the report in their respective house of the Assemblies.

  • GMB should take help of experts from different fields like engineers, marine science experts, environmental scientists, and experts in sociology and planning.



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