India is the world’s number one in recycling! Well, not when it comes to recycling domestic waste. This is pretty obvious, once you have seen the big piles of waste outside most Indian towns and cities. But India hosts the world’s largest ship recycling plant. And we have sneaked our way inside.
Thousands of tankers, freighters and cruise ships navigate our planet’s oceans; and as any machinery they have a limited live span. A fact that you may have never thought about before. At least we did not think about that. But where do all these ships go, after they have grown too old for economical operation? Chances are good, that they end up in the Alang ship wrecking plant. Around 40% of an estimated 700 deep-sea vessels that are wrecked annually, end their final cruise here. On average, this means one new arrival each and every day. The complete deconstruction of a ship takes about two months.
Outsiders not welcome
When we tried to enter Alang ship wrecking plant through its main gate, we were stopped by security. They showed us a laminated sheet of paper, stating the rules for foreign visitors. If you want to go inside, you need a permission letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Delhi, a letter from the regional government, another letter from your own embassy and then you need to pay an entrance fee of US$ 25. Photo- and videography are forbidden. The officials did not pick up on our question if we could get a special permission on the spot. Therefore, we had no other option but drive away again. We can only guess that the port authorities have had enough controversial reports about bad working conditions and environmental issues. So they are just making it very difficult for anybody to enter.
Sitting in our car, we grew more and more curious. We had already seen the line of huge wrecks from a distance. Plus, if they make it so hard for outsiders to enter the plant, then there must be interesting things to see. So we drove towards the northern end of the 10 km long stretch of beach, where the ship wrecking companies do their business. And we were lucky. Nobody was standing outside the security office, so Heiner squeezed the accelerator and we were inside. A left turn later and we found ourselves on the road paralleling the beach. On our right side were all the wrecking lots. Behind 2 meter high walls and gates we saw the wrecks. Laying there stranded on the beach. Another look into the side mirrors and we were sure that nobody followed us. And so we drove all the way to the northern end of the plant, watching lot after lot and ship after ship passing by our windows.
On the left hand side, there were small shops and restaurants for the workers. Behind that, we could see small huts, where the workers live. We were quite surprised that all the workers we saw obeyed the rules that were written in large, capital letters on most gates: “Safety First! Wear helmet and protective gear!” The men greeted us friendly when we passed by and it did not really seem like anybody had anything to hide.
How the ship wrecking business works
When a ship is put out of service, the shipping company sells the whole thing to one of the wrecking companies. Any sort of equipment and furniture still in place. From waste bins over TVs to industrial washing machines or professional kitchens. During high tide, the ship is simply stranded on one of the 150 lots on the 10 km stretch of beach. As soon as there is low tide, the workers enter the ship and start taking out anything that is not part of the ship’s steel construction. All this stuff is then sold to the many traders that line the access roads to the Alang ship wrecking plant for kilometers. Some traders specialize in doors, chairs or other furniture. Some sell kitchen equipment, machinery, engines or even lifeboats.
In the next step, the steel construction is cut into small pieces and taken apart. China pushing ridiculous amounts of steel into the market, hence lowering the steel price, has made the ship wreckers’ business less profitable. Many were forced to close their companies in the last couple of years.
Run, baby run!
We had reached the end of the yard, so we had to turn around. After taking some pictures along the way, we approached the roundabout, where a right turn would take us to the gate from which we had entered. Debating, whether to go straight and see the rest of the plant or not, we saw a guy in uniform, standing in the far end of the roundabout. We did not want to risk anything, the camera lying right in between us. So Heiner pushed the accelerator once again, we took the roundabout in the wrong direction (nobody minds that in India..) and drove away.
After leaving the plant, we spent another hour looking at the stores, selling all kinds of nautical furniture and equipment. Really an odd sight on its own! And probably a good place to buy a well maintained professional kitchen or a very unique souvenir.