The Wretched Face Of Globalization Hiding In A Ships' Graveyard In Bangladesh

Heavy lifting, paltry wages
Heavy lifting, paltry wages
Roberto Giovannini

SITAKUND — Welcome to one of the most polluted and dangerous coastlines in the world. On this murky stretch just a few kilometers from Bangladesh’s main industrial port, Chittagong, are dozens and dozens of beached ships.

Sea carriers, oil tankers and huge containers that at the end of their lives — many that can no longer sail safely — are abandoned here to be dismantled. Sitakund, like Alang in India or Gadani in Pakistan, is one of a sort of planetary black holes where garbage from the rich world is summarily and quietly offloaded; where thousands of impoverished people dismantle entire ships with their bare hands, hammers and blowtorches, carrying the heavy metal over their shoulders.

These people slog for paltry wages — as little as 20 cents per hour — and up to 12 hours every day without any safety measures and absolutely no protection. Many of these workers are young boys who descend into these ships in their dhoti (the traditional pants made with a sheet) and slippers made out of plastic.

Meanwhile, their employers discharge tons of toxic materials from the ships straight into the waters of the Bay of Bengal. It’s black, oily and foul-smelling here with an iridescent glaze of filth as far as the eye can see.

It was conceivable that the infamous Costa Concordia cruise ship, which has recently been righted more than a year after its fatal crash in Italy, might have been sent here on the ever growing wave of globalization. But in this case, it will most likely be dismantled in an Italian shipyard — perhaps Palermo, Genoa, Naples or Piombino, with better conditions and standards. There’s also the possibility it will be sent to Turkey, where the cost is much lower and the standards for environmental risk are different.

But here in Sitakund, destroying a ship costs practically nothing. The manpower is almost free. To “check” that there are no deadly gases at the bottom of the ships, they lower down chickens. If they come back alive, then the workers are sent down.

Accidents are part of the daily routine, explains Chandan Chowdhury, coordinator of the Songshoptaque organization that advocates for the workers. “It’s better to die than get injured,” he quipped. If you die, your family has the right to 125 thousand taka (or 1,250 euro). If you are injured, you are only able to get basic treatment and are paid for three days of work.

“Once, when there weren’t mobile phones,” continues Chandan, “if there was a fatal accident, the bosses of the yard were limited to throwing the bodies into the sea. We don’t do that anymore.”

Auction blocks

The dismantling business works like this: In exchange for money, unscrupulous middlemen take ships that need to be dismantled from shipowners and then sell them on to the shipyards along the coast who dismantle them methodically.

Each piece — from a single bolt to the electrical cables, from the motors to the furnished kitchens, from the generators to the compressors — may potentially wind up for sale at an auction. They even recover the precious steel from the hull, which ends up in mills and is said to provide some 60% of the entire country’s needs for the metal. Around 30,000 people work in this construction sector, usually in cycles of 6 to 8 months before being fired.

Recycling tends to always be considered a public good, but here it comes at the expense of people and the environment. Mohammed’s “house” is in one of the slums of Chittagong. He used to be a fisherman, but it is now impossible to make a living from the toxic sea.

Alongside the “Ava,” a Japanese motorboat that was built in 1983 and came here to be dismantled, there’s a 16-year-old boy named Samhan Ali. “I’ve worked on the construction site since I was 13,” he says. “I took my father’s place after he died in an accident. There were 15 of us children. Now, I’m unemployed.”

Hassan Badsha is 19 and earns 40 cents per hour because he is a specialized worker. “I’ve worked in the yards since I was six and I’ve seen many accidents — people losing their fingers or sometimes entire hands. Others have been crushed by the steel plates. In some companies, cranes with electromagnets were introduced, but these also reduce labor requirements and have led to layoffs.”

It’s the same all over the world, suggests Sawrav Barua, president of Songshoptaque. “We say that pollution has a price, and that those who pollute must pay, but the son of the representative of Chittagong, Abdul Kerim, has a naval shipyard. And if the owners are also politicians, who do you think they make the laws for?”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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