Alang Shipbreaking Yard, Gujarat

Among all the places we visited during our week-long visit to Gujarat, in Dec 2011, the one place that I did not think I would go to, and in fact I had not even thought of the Alang Shipbreaking Yard when planning the visit, turned out to be a big, big highlight of our trip. An unexpected and wholly educational and yes, exciting highlight. We ended up making two visits to the shipyard, to two different docks, and two brothers-in-law to thank for that, and two very different types of photos that emerged from the two visits.

For those who don't know, Alang is a "census town" in the district of Bhavnagar, but more famously, is perhaps the largest shipbreaking yard in the world. According to Alang - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, "The shipyards at Alang recycle approximately half of all ships salvaged around the world.". There are more than 150 yards at Alang, and at any given point in time, approximately 120 are in operation. These yards receive ships of all sizes, of all types - passenger liners, oil tankers, cargo ships, all. An estimated twenty thousand people, more, less - no one knows precisely because the labor is almost all unorganized - work at any given point in time to dismantle these ships. Dismantling is too safe a word to describe what happens to these ships.




To go back a little bit before we start, consider what happens to a ship when it is old. When it can no longer be certified by authorities to sail the seven seas safely. When the costs of keeping the ship seaworthy are no longer economical. When, by law, a ship has to be put to rest. When such a day comes near, and this can happen after twenty, thirty years for a ship, chances are that ship will come to Alang. Before it comes to Alang, it needs to be sold. Yes, ships don't just sail into Alang and lay there to die. No. The ship needs to be sold. The sale happens somewhere in the international market, and the shipyard owner who buys the ship enters into a transaction to pay the said amount for the ship, based on its tonnage, age, and other factors. Once the ship has been sold, it needs to be beached.

Why does the ship need to be beached? The ship is coming to its final resting place. It is never going to sail from Alang. It is going to be hacked to pieces, stripped bare, and melted, recast, and sold off, every last bit, ball, and scrap. Therefore it needs to be beached. It needs to be brought to the shore. And that can happen only at high tide. The ship is brought near shore, and over the course of a few hours, inch by inch, foot by foot, the ship is brought closer to shore, pulled in by cranes, by chains. Once the ship is beached, it is going to be taken apart. More on that later.

Before the ship can be dismantled, it first needs to be cleared by the Indian custom authorities. Till such time as they clear the ship, it cannot be boarded. But it is. You see, fear of theft. A ship, even though consigned to the Alang scrapyard, still is valuable. The ship, when sold, is sold as-is. The owners who sell the ship, leave the ship as-is. With air conditioners, with washing machines, with furnishings, heck - even with cans of Coca Cola, Nescafe, and cartons of milk, and pounds and pounds of meat, cooking oil, butter, ice-cream, and what have you, on the ship. It is simply not worthwhile for them to take these things off the ship. And while it remains on the ship, it is susceptible to theft. Hence the need for security. A couple, maybe more, depending on the size of the ship and whether it is a passenger liner or a cargo ship, will stay on board the ship at night.

Once the shipyard has all the necessary clearances and permissions from the customs authorities and after, of course, the funds have been transferred - to pay for the ship, the first set of people who get on to the ship are the ones who will explore every nook and cranny of the ship. No, not looking for rats or dead bodies stuffed in gunny bags, but for any gases or chemicals that may be lurking in the belly of the beast of a ship. That is a hazardous job, and these workers are equipped with gloves and masks, but it is hazardous.

After that, the task of dismantling the ship begins. With a passenger liner there is all this other stuff that is not really the main business of the shipyard owners that needs to be taken care of - beds, wardrobes, air-conditioners, room refrigerators, television sets, fancy lamps, etcetera, etcetera. There are many businesses that run by buying these knick-knacks and then selling them in Alang itself. As you drive through Alang to the shore, you can spot such open shops, markets, with row upon row of such sofas, refrigerators, and oddities that do not look out of place in Alang.

The ship is then broken apart. Tile by inch thick metal tile. Using gas cutters, workers set upon the ship. These tiles, ten feet long and six, seven feet wide, and weighing several hundred kilos - starting with the hull of the ship - are cut apart from the ship, and then dragged, using cranes, where other workers work to cut these into smaller squares, tiles, using gas cutters. Long, serpentine tubes run everywhere, connected to five feet long oxygen cylinders at one end, and to torches at the other end. Work goes on from morning till evening, stopping only at seven pm. As the ship is dismantled, trucks upon trucks wait patiently, to load themselves with the remnants of the ship, with these iron plates, to be hauled off to some plant hundreds of kilometers away.

Not all metal is of the same quality. Not all metal can be resold - it is simply not economical to haul it away to some plant. Some is plain scrap metal. It also is put to good use. It is not thrown away. Nothing, almost nothing is thrown away at Alang. Some of the metal is taken to a rolling mill. In Alang itself. Several, if not all, shipyards also own and run rolling plants closeby in Alang. These plants are fed metals from their respective shipyards. These metal pieces are first cut into regular shapes.
The machine that does the cutting looks innocuous enough. It does not even make much noise. Not even when an inch thick metal plate is sliced into two, in less than a second, with no more effort than it would take you to snap a toothpick into two.


These metal plates are then fed into a furnace that operates at 1500C (if I remember correctly). You don't want to melt these bars. Only heat them up, soften them up, and then roll them. After some time the metal plates are ready to be rolled out of the furnace. If you stand thirty feet away from the furnace the heat radiates at an uncomfortable intensity. Every foot you move closer to the furnace seems to increase the heat exponentially. To guide the heated metal plates you have two people standing a couple of feet away from the door of the furnace. These workers are paid three times, or more, than what the regular worker is paid. Wages of a fiery hell if ever there were one.
Metal bars heated to 1500C inside the furnace.
The opening in the furnace, from where the heated bars are extricated

A worker pulling a bar from inside the furnace, that has an inside temperature of 1500C






The metal bar runs down the conveyor, and onto the rollers


These plates are then rolled, four or five times in quick succession, through a series of rollers. Every time the plate goes through a roller, its length increases, while the other two dimensions decreases, obviously, till the plate has become a long rod. These rods are then shipped off to be used in various industries.




So, as you would expect, there must be lots of scrap metal that is extracted from the ship. Metal that can neither be sold off as is, nor can be rolled into rods and sold. Even this scrap metal is made use of. Enterprising shipyard owners, or others, run melting plants, again close-by, in the district of Bhavnagar itself, in industrial parks, that take this mountain of scrap metal extricated from the ships, and melts it into ingots. If you had studied your chemistry in school, and remembered any of it, then it would come in useful at these plants - different chemicals are used to separate out different metals, so that you don't have all manners of alloys being created by the melting of different metals. Filtering and purification also takes place at these plants. The ingots thus created are then sold off. These industrial units receive electricity at night, and are ensured a supply of electricity at night, and therefore you will find that many of these units work at night, starting up after midnight and continuing their work till sunrise.


For the sake of efficiency, you also have a compactor at these plants. The compactor does exactly what a compactor in movies does - takes metal and compacts it till it is reduced. In volume, in size. These are however smaller than the automobile compactors that you see in movies, where the hero finds himself, trapped, and with only a few seconds to escape before the compactor starts its business.

This entire heap of scrap that you see below, a veritable mountain of mishmash, has come from ships. Material that is literally scrap, but its metal content has some value. This scrap will find its way into the melter. And come out as an ingot. Recycled.

This is not the end of the industries that run in Alang. If you have been following this post so far, you would have realized that there is a lot of cutting going on. Cutting using torches that requires oodles of oxygen cylinders. It stands to reason that several shipyards also run their own plants to do this bottling. You would not be wrong. Where do these plants get the oxygen from? From the air. Yes - giant exhausts suck in gigantic amounts of air, and the plant then separates the oxygen from the rest of the components of air, and this oxygen is then bottled up.
The machine that separates the oxygen from the air
Oxygen cylinders, waiting to be transported to the shipyards at Alang

A single person can handle two cylinders at a time, rolling them by twisting them at the top. Physics, practical.
Further notes from Alang:
The gas cutters at work.

A "Daihatsu" engine. What's left of what would have been a proud ship a month or two ago. That's the time it takes, depending on the size of the ship, to cut it down to size, literally.

The ship you see below has been sawed off, literally. Perhaps a third of it is gone. As it is cut, piece by piece, it is dragged closer to shore. Massive chains and massive cranes do the job.


Gas cutters light up the late evening yard. Work will stop only at 7pm or thereabouts. The workers will sign the roster, and head out to their homes. They will be back the next morning. Labor unions do not exist at Alang. The workers are mostly daily wage labourers, paid at the end of each month, depending on the number of days and hours they have put in.

All these ships have sailed their last voyage. They will be reincarnated as girders, ingots, who knows.


The view from an oil tanker's control room.

The control room of the oil tanker. A Russian oil tanker, I think.

Conference room of the oil tanker.

The officer's room. A television, a VCR, and movies for company during the long voyages.

The captain's quarters. A separate living room and a bedroom.


Ships and knots.


The gym. With some weights, a punching bag, and at the right, not fully visible, is a swimming pool. Go figure. People, in the middle of an ocean, wanting to swim.

The mess.

Nope - not a single book that I could understand, or read, or therefore want to bring back.


As you go down the ship, you get to the quarters for the ship's crew. The rooms get smaller, more cramped, and the posters racier. Very racy.


There is a method to the madness that you see below. Eventually, all of it will find its way out of the shipyard.  Sold off, melted, rolled, recycled.

The engine block. All that's left of a once proud ship.

Which is the fate that awaits that this oil tanker below. It had beached the same day a few hours earlier.


The "Manila Floating Hotel & Restaurant" awaits its fate. I wonder what a tour inside a passenger liner would have been like. Perhaps another time. Perhaps not.

The "notified" in the "Alang Notified Area" below means that foreigners, i.e. those who are not Indian nationals, need to get prior permission from an administrative official before they can enter this notified area. Why that is I do not know. But it is so. To the best of my knowledge, I did not see anyone official looking, or officious looking, on the lookout for people in the notified area without permission. But then, I did not look closely enough.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.