Shipbreaking in Mumbai

By Peter Rousmaniere

Published in 2018 by Risk & Insurance Magazine

Shipbreaking is a common developing world way of describing the total dismantling of ships. To avoid work safety and environmental regulations in the developed world, many owners sell their old ocean-going vessels to recycling companies in India and Bangladesh, delivering them onto beaches at high tide.  See through Google Images their marooned hulks, picked apart by workers. I visited India last year for a closer look.

The work safety standards have improved recently. Ten years ago they were virtually non-existent. Employers are still not required to report deaths and injuries. The workers compensation system is very fragile compared to our own.

A visitor from the United States is struck by the work safety challenges within an economy pervaded by workers extremely poor, migratory and surplus.  Follow me into this world.

Ship breaking in Mumbai (Bombay) is concentrated in the Darukhana area, along the harbor and north of the business district.  One drives past what appear to be thousands of dwelling fabricated from wooden planks, covered with metal, cloth or plastic sheets to prevent rain from coming down into the dwelling interior.

Hard against high walls shielding docks are the ruins of many dwellings, smashed to bits, suggesting that their destruction was recent and, given the large swath of the destruction, deliberate.

Men and women are languidly sitting in front of dwelling, children are at play, aside a thin, slow moving stream of motorcycles, three wheeled taxis, sedans, trucks, warehouse vehicles, men stacking and hauling by hand cartloads of wood for construction, and occasionally a small herd of cows.  Every so often stands a cluster of restaurants and barber shops. If there is any sign we are getting closer to the ship breaking area, it is the greater frequency of men who appear muscular, chatting by the road side.

Then there appear shops filled with metal cylinders, blue painted winches and generators, the downstream ship-breaking distributors that can also sell linen, frosted glass, and toilets.

We turn into a straight path that can barely accommodate traffic.  A hundred small work sheds line the road, each the size enough for a car.  The sheds emit an oven like heat. Inside young men, glistening black down to their waist, grease covering every part of them, cut up metal, or stacking metal.  As the outside heat is well over 90, the interior of the sheds must be up to 120 degrees.  At one point the road is blocked by an oversized forklift maneuvering stacks of metal sheets into a large shed assisted by workers inside.

At the end of the path we come to what looks like a small land fill before an open body of water. Right upon the beach, listing to port, lies a blue painted freighter with Capetown in white on its stern as the port of origin.  The freighter looks as if the front half of it has been eaten away.  Large sections of it, perhaps two dozen in number, lay strewn before the cavity of the ship’s interior. From fifty feet away the heat and smell of burnt gas are intense.

Several men are torching metal from metal, to end with the collapse of a disengaged sheet onto the ground. The sheet will be lifted by hand and derrick and carried into one of the sheds.

These men are engaged in a monumental effort to break apart the ship into ten thousand bits, then prepare them for absorption into the life of the country, through the neighboring sheds, from there to scrap steel factories, into rebars for construction or uncounted other destinations. The asbestos in many of these old ships can be recycled as readily as a generator.

A 2004 study found that 6,000 people in Darukhana were thus engaged, paid between $1 to $4 a day.