Portents The living conditions in labourers' settlements are indeed sub-human, admits a government official, asking not to be named. High pollution levels, lack of clean drinking water and cramped living conditions in Alang have badly affec-ted the health of labourers. There is no provision for potable water. "We have to buy drinking water," says Mahesh, 25, who works at plot number 50. The Saurashtra region, which includes Alang, is facing a severe water crisis due to groundwater depletion.

"Groundwater is becoming increasingly saline as people in the area are overdependent on it. The future of drinking water supply in the area is bleak," says A B Lowalekar, director of gec at Vadodara. "The gmb is drawing up plans for a dam project to ensure adequate water supply to the region," says Pandey.

The list of diseases prevalent in workers' settlement is frightening; leprosy, malaria, cholera, respiratory problems, dysentery and tuberculosis are there. gec researchers found that about 194 of the 20,000 workers at Alang had leprosy. "Nearly eight out of 10,000 Indians suffer from leprosy. If the figures from Alang are to be believed, then the incidence is very high in the area," says Dharam Shaktu, deputy director gene-ral (leprosy), Directorate General of Health Services (dghs), New Delhi.

An inadequate health-care system exists in the form of Alang's one and only hospital set up with an assistance of Rs 250,000 from the gmb. "We do not call it a hospital which does have even an ambulance and one bottle of blood," says Bhadresh Pandiya, medical officer at the hospital. The hospital, which does not even have a x-ray machine, receives hundreds of patients every day.

"Last year, nearly 350 labourers were detected to be suffering from leprosy," says Hitesh Ghohil, physician at the hospital. "The cases may even be higher in the coming days if proper living conditions are not provided to the labourers," he warns. Several workers suffer respiratory problems, which Ghohil attributes to air pollution.

Pandey defends the role of gmb. "We are conducting leprosy detection camps every month. The gmb ensures that every patient gets free medical treatment," he says.

Living dangerously
Death lurks behind every giant sheet of steel peeled off from a ship. Since April 1997, there have been three major fires and explosions in the ships. An oil tanker beached at plot number 48 exploded on April 22, 1997. Workers say that nearly 30 people died, though officials say the toll was 16. The impact was so strong that a 700-tonne steel plate was blown out of the ship's body. Reason: the ship was not gas-free. When workers started cutting the ship's body with the help of gas cutters, it caught fire, blowing off the gas cylinders and creating a massive explosion.

In another accident, Felixcon , a Russian fish factory ship, caught fire. Two people died and 22 were injured. Several labourers were killed due to fires in another fish factory ship at plot number 24, and in a general cargo vessel beached at plot number 24 (r). In the absence of effective fire and safety systems, it takes very long to extinguish even small fires at Alang. "It took nearly 10 days to control the smallest of the three fires," says a shipbreaker on the condition of anonymity. "We do not get time to clean oil from the ships as muqa-dams (supervisors) order us to start cutting the ship immediately after it is beached. We are helpless," says Mahesh.

One of the shipbreakers sums up the dangers involved in cutting the ships. "Nearly 300 low-pressure gas cylinders are always kept at every yard in a haphazard manner. These are used for cutting a ship's body. When a new ship is beached, at least 100 gas cylinders are taken inside the ship. Before reaching the yard, these ships carry hydrocarbons such as diesel, furnace oil and lubricating oil that are required to operate the ship till the beaching is completed.

"Most of the time, cutting is started without properly cleaning these hydrocarbons. The moment a high-pressure flame comes in contact with hydrocarbon vapour, there is a big blast," he says. The families of most of the workers who die in accidents do not get compensation. Only those enlisted with the insurance department do. Tapan Sen, secretary, Centre for Indian Trade Unions (citu), New Delhi, says citu would soon launch major initiatives to protect the cause of labourers at Alang.

Desperately seeking solutions
Bala says that the cpcb has recommen-ded a common incineration facility at the yard to burn off hazardous wastes. But there are objections. "They are wrong to assume that by incinerating hazardous wastes, the problem would be solved," says a ban spokesperson. "Comm-unities in the West have realised that incineration only creates a much more insidious danger by releasing dioxins and furans, which are hormone disrupters," he avers. The cpcb has also recommended an organised landfill site for non-toxic solid wastes and installing facilities to isolate oil spills.

The gec has said in its report that shipbreaking works should be discouraged on-shore. "You can easily dispose off effluents scattered on the land by burning or removing it from the area," observes Bandyopadhyay.

As part of its guidelines, cpcb has chalked out an environment management plan and a disaster management plan. Under the environment management plan, shipbreakers' units will have to obtain permission from the State Pollution Control Board of Gujarat. At the same time, it has also asked the board to monitor transboundary movement of ships at Alang. As per the plans, the board will monitor the levels of hazardous wastes, solid wastes and water pollution.

Pandey defends the role of gmb in checking pollution in Alang. "The gmb has chalked out several plans to ensure that pollution levels do not rise above the critical level. It spent about Rs 35 lakh on the gec study. We are concerned about these problems," he says. How much? Only time will tell.

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