Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 17

Against a rich historical background of maritime commerce, the state of Gujarat on the northwest coast of India is home to the Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yard, one of the largest ship-breaking facilities in Asia. This huge industrial operation was established in 1983 and has grown to become one of the most important industries in the state.

Chapter One   Introduction


  Anne Ebner © 2003


Inevitably an undertaking of this magnitude in a sensitive coastal area has generated a variety of problems – social, cultural, environmental, economic and political. Ways to develop a framework to solve and mitigate some of these problems lie at the core of the project undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and are the subject of this publication.

Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands platform

In 1996, UNESCO established the Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands (CSI) platform. The overall objective of the CSI platform is to contribute to the development of an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to the prevention and resolution of conflicts over resources and values in coastal regions and small islands.

Three modalities lie at the core of the CSI approach:

The field project at the Alang-Sosiya Ship-Breaking Yard has proven to be particularly challenging. Not only does it bring to the fore a number of social and environmental issues, but it also involves a diverse range of interests and stakeholders, who all share an economic interest in the sustainable development of the yard, yet have vastly different means and abilities to influence that development. How to bring these stakeholders together to address their individual concerns has emerged and been developed as a critical new operational modality for CSI.

Project activities

The initial phase of the project commenced in 1999 with field studies of the socio-economic and biophysical conditions of the villages lying within a 12 km radius of ASSBY. Comparative studies were conducted to evaluate changes in the lifestyles of local village inhabitants under the influence of ship-breaking and associated downstream industries, as well as changes in local social organization brought about by the influx of heterogeneous groups of workers to the coastal area.



Research team leaders, Harishchandra Dube
(centre) and Vidyut Joshi (right), with
ship-breaking workers

The first phase also surveyed and mapped natural resource stocks (including flora, fauna and water) in the ASSBY area. Using old records and oral traditional knowledge of the local residents, changes and trends in natural resource availability during the 1970s and 1980s were assessed. It was on this basis that some of the impacts of the ship-breaking yard on the natural resource system could be determined. The study team then proposed measures to conserve natural resources and biodiversity for locally appropriate sustainable development.

It was recognized after the first phase of activities that in order to further develop the project there were two key issues that needed to be addressed: water quality and supply and the migrant worker population. A workshop was held in July 2000 that brought together local experts from research institutions, government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector as well as local stakeholders themselves. During discussions held over two days, it was agreed that in order to fully understand the problems raised during the first phase, it was necessary to refocus the project by clearly identifying and consulting with the major stakeholders: the villagers, migrant workers, ship-breakers and the Gujarat Maritime Board.

The second phase of the project culminated in a multi-stakeholder consultation and review workshop in 2001. Preparation for this workshop involved extensive consultations held by the Bhavnagar University project team with individuals, groups and representatives of each of the four main stakeholder groups. These groups were profiled and their major issues and concerns were summarized. There are a host of critical concerns that lie at the core of sustainable development at ASSBY:

Understanding these issues and how the different stakeholders perceive them provides the foundation for developing wise practices to mitigate negative social and environmental impacts. Furthermore, this paves the way to establish a mechanism through which the stakeholders can maintain an open dialogue. Indeed, it is through the development of this phase that the project began to suggest itself as a suitable ground to test the application of a multi-stakeholder agreement. Such an agreement will necessarily be discussed, shaped and revised through ongoing dialogue and negotiation.

Annex I contains a summary of the project, while an assessment of the project conducted in December 2001 is included in Annex II. Annex III contains a list of all relevant articles that have been posted to the CSI Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development web-based discussion forum.

Background to the Alang-Sosiya Ship-Breaking Yard

Gujarat has a long and colourful history of maritime commerce that stretches back almost 3,000 years. During this period Gujarat was in contact with China, Egypt, Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Arabia and even Greece. The many ports which dotted its coast rose and fell in importance as the centuries went by and were renowned for ship-building. Today, however, the villages of Alang and Sosiya on the Gulf of Khambhat have become the focus of considerable activity and attention, not for building ships, but for breaking and recycling them.

Ship-breaking plots stretching along the coast at

Gujarat is rapidly becoming one of the most industrialized states in India. The coastal industrial belt of south Gujarat, referred to as the ‘Golden Corridor’, has already reached saturation point in terms of industrial development as well as pollution. Attention is now turning to the coastal regions in the peninsular (Saurashtra) region of the State, regarded as a potential ‘Silver Corridor’. Certain forecasts suggest that by 2025, 60% of industry and the equivalent percentage of the State's population will be located along the coasts. Hence it is pertinent that mistakes of the past are not repeated and that sustainable development is accorded due priority when planning for industrialization of the coastal regions. One of the first major industrial developments along the Saurashtra coast of peninsular Gujarat was the Alang-Sosiya Ship-Breaking Yard where operations officially commenced with the beaching of the M.V. Kota Tenjong on February 13, 1983.

The coastal village of Alang was selected as the site for India's second large-scale ship-breaking yard (after Mumbai) as a result of specific policy decisions by the Central Indian and Gujarat State governments. In 1978, the Central government adopted a policy of importing ships ready for scrapping by the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation and created a ‘ship-breaking development fund’ for this purpose. In order to diversify ship-breaking activity away from Mumbai, a number of studies were carried out in the early 1980s by the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation and the Gujarat State government. In 1982, representatives of the ship-breaking industry joined government officials in a detailed study of the coasts. Alang, located 56 km south of the city of Bhavnagar, was identified as a suitable site for beaching very heavy ships, given its continental shelf, high tidal range (around 10 metres) and comparatively mud-free conditions.

The Gujarat Maritime Board was then given the job of installing and arranging for the necessary infrastructure: acquisition of land, planning and allotment of plots to ship-breakers and the provision of water, electricity, roads and communications.


ASSBY is the one of the largest ship-breaking facilities in Asia. At the peak of operations at the yard there have been as many as 100 plots in operation serviced by an estimated 25–30,000 workers, the majority of them migrants. There have been more than 3,677 vessels broken at the yard since operations began representing over 27 million LDT (light displacement tonnage – the net weight used to calculate scrap value). The iron and steel recovered from the ship-breaking activities account for an estimated 10–15% of India’s steel production. Important downstream industries have developed including re-rolling mills, foundries, oxygen plants, transport and recycling and resale of a wide range of items, from turbine engines to washbasins and armchairs. At its height, during the mid-late 1990s, the iron and steel industry combined with secondary activities was estimated to be worth in excess of US$ 500 million per annum contributing significantly to the revenues earned by the Gujarat Maritime Board and the State government from this industry.

Ship-breaking processes

There is a growing trade in the scrapping of ships that is directly related to the continuing growth of the shipping industry. The working life of the average ocean-going vessel is approximately 30 years. The costs of ship-breaking have increased in those countries where strict standards and guidelines for working conditions and the disposal of waste are enforced. In the last few decades there has been a relocation of the industry from the USA and Europe to Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and the Philippines where the costs of ship-breaking are much lower.

The global trade of ships to be broken continues to expand as the International Maritime Organization steps up the phase out of single hull oil tankers. In 1992 the Basel Convention came into force at the instigation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with the express aim to minimize the generation and transboundary movement of hazardous waste. The ship-breaking industry has long been targeted as a violator of the Convention. After intense lobbying by international NGOs, such as Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network, the 6th Convention of the Parties adopted technical guidelines for the environmentally-sound management of the dismantling of ships in 2002. However, the responsibilities of ship owners and ship-breaking countries need to be further clarified.

Each leased plot at ASSBY employs between 150–200 workers and towards the end of 2003 there were around 15,000 workers employed in approximately 80 working plots. Over 90% of the total labourers engaged at ASSBY are migrants, who come seeking better employment opportunities than those available in their home states.

Material being sorted for sale
in recycling shops (‘khadas’)

According to an experienced ship-breaker, ships are purchased directly over the telephone or internet, or through a brokerage service usually located in India or London. The ship-breaker tries to get the best possible return on the investment by breaking the ship as efficiently as possible. Important considerations, besides the price, include the weight of the ship, where it was built and the purpose for which it was used. For example, breaking a Russian ship entails ‘high-weight loss’ because there is no market in which to re-sell Russian equipment. Ships constructed in the USA give the highest return in terms of the quality and value of steel recovered but are more expensive to purchase, whereas ships from Japan are the cheapest and quickest vessels to break. The resale value of equipment recovered is not to be underestimated and entire engines are often resold and converted into 5 Megawatt power plants for 15% of the cost of a new one. In the immediate district of Bhavnagar alone there are over 100 steel re-rolling mills catering to the steel recovered from the ships. The preferred vessels broken at ASSBY are bulk cargo carriers, tankers and car carriers.

Prior to beaching a ship at ASSBY, several teams simultaneously inspect the vessel. Of most importance, in line with government regulations, is the inspection for hazardous materials and residues by a government approved technician. Other teams from the plot where the ship is to be broken, including a non-ferrous metal dismantler, inspect the vessel to assess the best way to break it. Once the vessel is approved for beaching by the Gujarat Maritime Board and the tide is right, the pilot brings the ship at full speed onto the shore in front of the appropriate plot. Between 5–10% of the ships that arrive at ASSBY are towed as their engines no longer function (dead vessels).


Half-broken ship being prepared to be dragged
further onshore

At present, the technology used in the ship-breaking process is relatively simple and labour intensive. The breaking of one ship requires an average four to five months and is mainly achieved through manual effort. The ship is stripped entirely and then cut into sections using oxygen torches. Cranes are used for loading and unloading of heavy machinery and periodically dragging the ship further up the shore. The average working hours are from 8.00 a.m. to 6.30 p.m., six days per week. During the two highest tides of the month, at the full and new moon, the ship is dragged further up the beach by cranes as it gradually becomes lighter and smaller.

According to the ship-breakers, one of the impediments facing the introduction of new technology and associated work practices at the yard is the international pressure to ban the export of ships containing toxic substances to Asian countries. They argue that this makes large-scale capital investment unlikely. The possible loss of jobs is also a serious concern in India where there is an urgent need for employment opportunities.

The impact of the ship-breaking process on the environment has been widely publicized. The ship-breaking procedure creates pollution of land, sea and air. Toxic fumes are produced by the process itself as well as from fires that burn non-recyclable waste materials. Due to improper disposal of solid waste, animals, crops and the ground water aquifers are affected. Noise pollution due to heavy traffic in the local area is another impact of the industry. By far the greatest concern according to NGOs is the disposal of PCBs (poly-chlorinated biphenyls), heavy metals and carcinogens such as asbestos. This was the subject of a highly publicized protest off the coast of the yard in 1999, designed to draw attention to the need for mandatory decontamination of vessels carrying toxic waste, prior to their transportation to the ship-breaking sites. There has been some recent progress at ASSBY such as the issuing of gas-free inspection certificates before the ship is beached to ensure safety for the workers during the torch cutting process. Nevertheless, numerous serious social and environmental challenges remain to be addressed and the lack of effective enforcement of local regulations for ship-breaking is also of concern.


There are four major stakeholder groups located within the study area. These are the villagers, ship-breakers, migrant workers and the Gujarat government represented by the Gujarat Maritime Board. The study area was defined as a zone within a radius of 12 km of Alang village, which lies at the heart of the present day ship-breaking activities. In 1961, this area contained ten villages whose residents depended on subsistence agriculture and cattle herding. Almost everybody worked in the fields. The 1961 census put the total population of the ten villages at roughly 7–8,000. Thirty years later, the 1991 census indicated that the population of the area had grown to almost 20,000. The most recent estimate by the project team in 2002 found the combined total population of the yard and the ten villages to be in excess of 60,000 people.

The study area falls within a zone that has been identified as underdeveloped both socially and economically. Caste and gender traditionally had, and continue to have, a strong influence on economic, social and cultural activity. Prior to 1982, education and literacy levels were very low. Increased movement of people into the area has resulted in an increase in land prices; within a 15 km radius of ASSBY, land prices are reported to have increased up to 100 times compared with pre-ASSBY times. Not surprisingly, a growing number of villagers have sold their land and changed their professions.

ASSBY has had profound impacts on the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the local society. Immediately obvious are changes and improvement to the material quality of life and income generation, yet there have also been considerable changes in marriage patterns, employment, inter-caste relations, religious practices and education. There has also been a rise in theft, illegal sale of liquor, and prostitution which is of concern to the local residents. Some of these issues have been discussed on the Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development internet-based forum; see Annex III for a list of the relevant articles.

The Indian Caste System
Adapted from O'Malley (1934)

The Hindu community is divided into four major castes: Brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras, which are further divided into over 2,000 sub-castes, groups or classes arranged in a complex system of social delineation. Certain qualities were believed to be inherent to each caste: peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom and religiousness are attributed to the brahmins, who were supposed to work as temple priests, teachers and advisors; heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity and leadership are the natural qualities of work for the khsatriyas – kings and soldiers belonged to this caste; farming, livestock rearing and business were the natural work for the vaishyas; and for the shudras there was labor and service to others. All the so called ‘backward’ classes of India belong to the ‘shudra’ caste. Members of this caste normally follow ‘less respectable’ jobs such as cobblers, tanners, barbers, black smiths, garbage collectors and sewage cleaners. These were the beliefs and trends in the ancient times. Over the years, however, the caste system has become much more flexible.

The caste system is hereditary, with each member being born into a certain caste. Between its members, a caste is a bond of union, but the system splits up society into sections which, owing to the prohibitions not only against intermarriage but also against eating and/or drinking together, prevent social fusion more perhaps than any other institution in the world. However, over the years, the social restrictions have eroded and there is greater social intermingling among the so called ‘higher castes’. However inter-caste marriages are still not very common, especially in the rural areas.


  Consultation with villagers, Jaspara

The ten principle villages in the vicinity of ASSBY are Alang, Sosiya, Manar, Sathara, Kathava, Bharapara, Mathavda, Takhatgadh (also known as Chopada), Jaspara and Mandva. All are very close to the seashore and lie within a radius of 12 km from the centre of ASSBY. The vast majority of the population of these villages (except Jaspara, where the majority are Kshatriya or Rajputs) are members of the Koli caste, a socially and educationally disadvantaged group. Paleval (sub-caste of Brahmin), Garasia (sub-caste of Kshatriya) and Kharak (agriculturist, sub-caste of Sudra) are three other significant castes in these villages. The villages are part of Talaja taluka. A taluka is a state electoral subdivision of a district. All of the above villages, including Alang and Sosiya, are administratively in Talaja taluka of Bhavnagar District.

Before the advent of ship-breaking activities, most of the villagers were involved in agriculture and animal husbandry, with a small sea-faring minority engaged in fishing and allied activities such as net mending and boat building. Since the establishment of ASSBY, local people have witnessed extensive socio-economic and environmental changes. Although very few members of the local population work directly in the yard dismantling ships, many are involved in ancillary activities and businesses including tea shops, pan galas (wooden push carts selling goods), sundry provisions, snack stalls and other such small enterprises. There are in excess of 400 scrap goods shops – or ‘khadas’, that resell items recovered from the ships. Most of these khadas are owned by villagers, particularly those of Kharak and Paleval castes. Kshatriya have pursued opportunities in transportation. Some villagers rent accommodation whilst others (mostly women belonging to ‘lower’ castes) are engaged in prostitution servicing the mainly single migrant workers. Of late, prostitution has become a growing trade with truck loads of ‘mobile/migrant’ prostitutes periodically providing their services to the migrant labourers.

There is a strong belief amongst the majority of the local people that the developments and changes arising from the establishment of ASSBY represent unique opportunities that should be exploited while they are still available. Yet according to the
villagers, the changes brought about by the ship-breaking industry have not been without environmental costs. Depletion of fuel wood and water resources is of major concern. Agriculture was a viable industry in the past, with onions as the major crop, and cattle herding was also important. Agriculture and animal husbandry have deteriorated and the milk and onion-growers cooperatives are no longer in business. One reason for this is the depletion of water resources. Not only has the level of the water table dropped from 15 metres to 130 metres in the last 20 years, but water quality has declined because of saline intrusion. Prosopis juliflora (Gando baval, an exotic weed) is the only remaining fuel wood readily available in the villages. Given this scarcity, the villagers have turned to more expensive kerosene and liquid petroleum products for their energy needs.


Tea break at one of the larger

The ship-breakers are entrepreneurs and business people who supply capital and manage the activities at the yard, starting from the moment of purchase until the last steel plate is sold and driven away from their plot. The plots at ASSBY are allotted by the Gujarat Maritime Board to ship-breakers and these plots are most often run as family businesses, many of which are based in Mumbai. Many of these entrepreneurs are first generation ship-breakers and most have learnt the business through trial and error at ASSBY.

Due to the nature of the industry and the lack of training provided at all employment levels, ship-breaking is conducted with little application of scientific and technical knowledge, and the minimum of environmental and safety standards. The ship-breaking industry has been organized into a Gujarat Ship-Breakers Association to lobby for the long-term security of the industry.

A major concern for the ship-breakers is the fact that they have to pay 15% customs duty and 16% excise duty which is quite high compared to the 5% of each tax levied in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Environmental pollution, health and safety hazards and lack of potable water are also of direct concern to most of the stakeholders. The ship-breakers need to be further encouraged to take a greater share of responsibility for the sustainable development of ASSBY and to be more responsive to the concerns of the villagers and the large numbers of migrant workers.


There are 11 recognized categories of work existing in the ship-breaking plots:

  Common labourers at ASSBY

The workforce is comprised almost entirely of a migrant labour pool from some of the most underdeveloped north Indian states, namely Bihar, Orissa, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. There are also a substantial number of people working in ancillary activities who are from Gujarat. Approximately 80% of the migrant workers are illiterate. Since they are migrants and relatively young in age, almost 70% of them stay within ASSBY in rented shanty dwellings usually without adequate facilities for potable water, electricity and drainage systems. The workers’ monthly income from ship-breaking activities ranges from a low Rs. 2,100 (US$ 50 approx.) for a first-time helper, to Rs. 9,000 (US$ 200 approx.) for a plot supervisor/foreman, with an average of Rs. 3,000 (US$ 65 approx.) for an experienced but unskilled worker. By Indian standards the average wages are quite good for such manual and hazardous work and help to explain the attraction of employment at ASSBY.

Adequate living conditions are the primary concern of the migrant workers. Other concerns include wages, and safe, healthy and standardized working conditions. They are acutely aware that their working and living conditions result in illnesses such as diarrhoea, jaundice, stomach pain, tuberculosis, fever and skin diseases, and cause work accidents which are sometimes lethal. In addition, being away from their family, there is a high indulgence in unsafe sex exposing them to HIV and venereal diseases. According to a 1998 report published by the Bhavnagar Blood Bank, increasing numbers of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, tuberculosis and hydrocil (enlargement of the testicles largely due to physical injury common among labourers who do hard menial jobs without proper protection to their genitals) were detected among the labourers.

Government (Gujarat Maritime Board)

The Gujarat Maritime Board is the coastal zone authority of the Government of Gujarat and manages the affairs of ASSBY and all the ports except Kandla. The Board is responsible for designing a system to ensure work safety. Considering the industry is highly unorganized, safety measures required by the Factories Act (1948 – Second amendment 1987) are not being implemented. The Gandhi Labour Institute of the Government of Gujarat has carried out a survey of safety at ASSBY and has laid down safety standards for both work place practices and waste disposal.

Clearly if the industry is to be properly regulated and made sustainable there is a need for spatial planning. This would include physical infrastructure such as roads, housing, drainage, sewage disposal, water and electricity; and social infrastructure like schools, hospitals, centres for entertainment and social gatherings, places of worship, and community services. The Gujarat Maritime Board is not structured for the provision of social and community infrastructure, nor are their officials trained in these areas.

The situation posed by unorganized working and living conditions also creates health hazards, not only for the workers, but also for Gujarat Maritime Board officials, plot lessees and the villagers. Environmental pollution is a shared concern for all stakeholders.

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