The flight of migrant workers creates a tsunami at Alang

Migrant labourers are leaving ship breaking yards at Alang, Gujarat in droves, thus adding further strain on the embattled ship recyclers smarting under the after effect of the coronavirus outbreak.

Migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha make up some 80 per cent of the 20,000 workers directly employed in some 120 shipbreaking plots at Alang, home to the world’s largest stretch of shipbreaking beaches, in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district.

Another 3 lakh people are indirectly employed in Alang.

The lockdown forced recyclers to halt operations till April 21.

When government authorities in Bhavnagar sought views of migrant labourers a few days ago before requisitioning the Indian Railways for running special trains to take them home, about 12,000 workers consented to board the trains.

Since then, as much as 5,000 workers have left on four-five special trains, said Anand Hiremath, Head, Research and Development and Lead Coordinator, Responsible Ship Recycling at GMS, the world’s biggest cash buyer of ships for recycling.

“Thousands of workers have left and many more are leaving,” said Chintan Kalthia, managing director at R L Kalthia Shipbreaking, which runs two recycling plots at Alang. “It has created another tsunami of problems for us,” he said.

Dismantling activity stalls

Beaching of ships for dismantling at Alang have dwindled to four-five ships a month from 16-20 after India imposed a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus. The restriction on crew change at Indian ports in the initial days of the lockdown also put a halt to beaching of ships.

Most of the end-of-life ships coming to Alang for dismantling have a mix of Indian and foreign crew on board, who faced problems in returning to their homes due to lack of road transport and stoppage of local and international flights.

“This blocked the supply side. Our trade is solely dependent on international supply of ships,” says Kalthia whose yard is dismantling one ship while another one is waiting outside at anchorage.

Since the lockdown, mostly ‘dead vessels’ – crew-less ships running not on their own power but are towed by tug boats – have been beached.

Currently only 47 of the 120 shipbreaking yards are operational with some 54 ships in various stages of recycling.

Each plot requires at least 100 workers to operate at 50 per cent capacity. “We have only 35 to 65 workers on the yards. We cannot complete the recycling process with this number of workers. We will not be able to survive with this number of workers. Eventually, we will have to stop operations,” says Kalthia.

In this situation, both Gujarati and non-Gujarati workers will lose jobs, he added.

Ship recycling work is proceeding at a slow pace because all the inter-state borders have been closed and nobody is buying the products from the yards, said Anand Hiremath at GMS.

“It’s a disturbing scene at Alang,” says Rohit Agarwal, Director at Guideship Consulting Services LLP, a ship recycling consultancy based in Bhavnagar.

Recyclers say that only 25 per cent of the yards will operate till the labour shortage was fixed. “We have urged the State and Central Governments to bring the workers back,” said an official with another ship recycling plot.

“The government made the mistake of not allowing construction to re-start in green and orange zones at least 15 days ago. They should have given strong support to workers during the pandemic instead of allowing them to return to their native places if they wanted the economy to re-start,” he said.

Alang’s woes started even before the pandemic struck.

As a wobbling local economy hit steel, construction and automobile sectors (all these have a bearing on the fortunes of shipbreakers), recyclers suffered. Their woes were compounded by unfavourable foreign exchange rates (forex plays a vital role in recycling) and volatile scrap/steel plates prices.

There are lot of factors which are going to affect Alang in the future, says Rohit Agarwal at Guideship.

Labour crunch

Materials ripped apart from the ships are not being sold as steel rolling mills are shut due to labour crunch and transportation of steel plates have been hit by lack of trucks and drivers. “As a result, inventories are rising, blocking space inside the yards,” he said.

The yards are producing something daily which is not being sold. So, at some point, they will be full, beyond which they cannot work further, says Rohit.

With workers leaving in large numbers, some plots may have to shut down because it doesn’t make sense to work with minimal people, he observed.

The entire Bhavnagar – hometown to India’s Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya – is depended to a large extend on the ship recycling industry at Alang and the ancillary industries supporting it.

“Future is not looking good. People are sceptical, they are scared what is going to happen now. Things are not in their control; it is beyond their control,” he said.

Recyclers are preparing to approach the government, seeking a relief package, Rohit added.