Up to the 1970’s, ocean liners and merchant ships from all over the world were taken for recycling to specific sites in the United States and different European countries. These enormous ships are productive during an average of 30 years after which they are just like an old car: too expensive to maintain in circulation. But the cost and complexity of the shipbreaking industry goes a lot further than this.
After environmental regulations and labour policies were instituted during the 70’s, the ship recycling industry moved to Asia, specifically Korea and Taiwan, countries that at this point of the century were only at the beginning of their on-going development as “first world” countries. Once this happened, at the beginning of the 1980’s, India foresaw an undeniable opportunity to take over a billion dollar industry that would eventually spread it’s wealth –and damage- to East Asia, until today.
Along the 1600km of the coastline of Gujarat, an impoverished state of Western India lays Alang. Alang is a census town in Bhavnagar where the biggest ship breaking industry settled during the early 80’s. Spread along 10km of a beach, described as “pristine and unspoiled” up to that moment, exist 190 plots dedicated to shipbreaking. It is said that before this industry developed, one could walk for 5km and find maybe one fisherman. However, Indian entrepreneurs seized the moment when this industry was shut down by costs in the West. The perfect Geographical conditions of the beach -sudden high tides that allow immense cargo vessels to arrive very close to the shore and to “beach” once the tide is low- and the desperate need for labour development in the area allowed for this business to prosper.
Today, Alang is popularly known as a place where “ships come to die and men die with them”. Since it’s beginning, Alang -once an agricultural site- called upon many of the poorest men in the region who found themselves desperate for a means of survival: basically any job for any wage will do. And it is this desperation that has helped to strengthen the economy of this industry in this place until today.
In this essay, I intend to portray the thickness that may be identifiable in the dynamics of grey area such as Alang: how East meets West through what remains of capitalist economies: waste. How the connections are complex paradoxes that have woven a new socioeconomic and political site, how waste shifts its value according to its locality or globality, and how the human condition is at stake because in the end, it’s all about the money.