The submission of an expert committee report to the Supreme Court on the direct link between the hazardous working conditions at the ship-breaking dock in Alang, Gujarat, and their health comes not a moment too soon. The report is alarming as it suggests that the hazardous conditions in ship-breaking yards can be far worse than those in the mining industry — the conditions of which have been cause for lament all too often. An extremely small number of hazardous industries in India comply with safety standards. This was made obvious in last week’s explosion in Dhanbad’s coalmine that killed all the workers trapped inside. The Alang report has only validated charges that ship-breakers are vulnerable to asbestosis, a precursor to lung cancer. That Indian industry fails to adhere to the most minimum of safety standards is not half as scandalous as the fact that Indian industry has got away with it.
Earlier this year, when the asbestos-laden French ship, Clemenceau, charted Indian waters to dock at Alang’s shipbreaking yard, cries of protest were raised not only by Indians, but also by international environmental agencies such as Greenpeace. The protests led to the French government recalling the ship — but not before the Supreme Court ordered a report that could validate the impact on the yard’s workers of toxic ship-breaking. Arguably, India cannot summarily dismantle its Rs 2,000 crore ship-breaking industry that employs, by and large, migrant workers from Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. But is there any case for not providing workers with helmets, shoes, glasses and gloves? And should health check-ups not be mandatory? It is through clear disregard for human safety and health that companies, both public and private, choose to ignore working conditions. Could the mine accident have been averted? The rescue teams could certainly have saved some, if not all, of the trapped miners if they had a map of the mine and the equipment needed to reach them. If regulations exist, why are they regularly flouted? And where is the Left, the voice of the working class? For a country restless to become an economic superpower, it should learn that valuing a workforce begins at home.