Rescue workers bring out a body from the burning vessel, MT Aces | White Star
Rescue workers bring out a body from the burning vessel, MT Aces | White Star

Once upon a time, a cyclone hit the Arabian Sea, off the eastern coast of Balochistan. The storm brought a lot of rubbish to the shore. Along with it came wooden planks from battered ships — and also a whole wooden vessel. There was no one on board.

Sometime later, a company claimed ownership of the ship, which was soon broken apart, loaded onto trucks and taken to Karachi. “That was the first ship broken on this coast,” says Bashir Mehmoodani, as he retells a story he heard from his elders. “This is how ship-breaking at Gadani started, back in the 1960s.”

The pioneers in the field, according to him, were two companies — M M Bukhsh and Gokal Group. “Now there are 35 to 40 companies working on ship-breaking here,” says Mehmoodani, a native of Gadani.

He remembers what senior members of his family told him about Gadani’s history. “People here did small-scale farming before the 1965 war,” he says. Dependent entirely on rain, farming did not meet their economic needs. Many of them, therefore, worked as fishermen and herded cattle, he says.

Industry sources put annual steel production, from the breaking of each ship, at 1.2 to 1.5 million tons and that of wood at 15 to 25 tons.

Gadani is a small town in Hub tehsil of Balochistan’s Lasbela district. Located about 46 kilometres to the north-west of Karachi, it is known for its Cape Monze beach with golden sands and its busy and colourful fish harbour. About 10 kilometres down east from the town – on the road that links Karachi with Gadani – is a stretch of land (about 15 kilometres long) where Pakistan’s ship-breaking industry is located.

The land is partitioned into 314 plots of various sizes — 135 of them have functioning ship-breaking yards in them. Many of these plots are owned by private companies. The Balochistan Development Authority (BDA), a government department responsible for improving physical infrastructure in the province, is the single largest yard owner: it owns 34 plots that are rented out to private ship-breaking firms.

Mehmoodani’s tale suggests that Gadani’s choice as the site of Pakistan’s lone ship-breaking centre was accidental. Experts believe otherwise.

Also read: All at sea- A trip along Pakistan's coastline

The site is ideal for the industry because – according to the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI), an Oslo-based independent institute focusing on good governance, international law and peace and conflict – its “beaches are sandy and the water level is deep”. Gadani’s topography helps bring ships to the beach without worrying about low or high tide, says Farrukh Punjwani, the proprietor of a Karachi-based ship-breaking firm. “Ships have to wait for weeks and even months at other ship-breaking yards for the tide to be high so that they can reach the beach. Gadani has deep-sea beaches, so ships are not required to wait,” he says. “The sand at the beaches here is neither muddy nor loose. Its firmness helps ships to make it on shore easily.”

Once businessmen knew these advantages, they rushed to set up shop in Gadani. Land for ship-breaking yards was earmarked and allocated to different companies and ship-breaking started in earnest. Ship-breakers at Gadani dismantled 25 vessels in the four years preceding 1977, according to an article published in a Karachi-based daily, Business Recorder, in March of that year. A further 35 ships had already been purchased for their future dismantling when the article was published.

Workers carry a rope to a ship | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Workers carry a rope to a ship | Arif Mahmood, White Star

The newspaper reported that Gadani had the capacity to dismantle about 100 vessels a year. This, Business Recorder pointed out, could provide cheap scrap for the iron and steel industry in Pakistan and save money on expensive “supplies from abroad”.

Daily Dawn reported in July 1977 that the number of vessels being dismantled at Gadani that year had reached 50. Four vessels were being brought every month to the ship-breaking yards, said the newspaper. The industry at the time, as per Dawn, employed 8,000 workers and every year saved four million dollars that were otherwise needed for importing such materials as steel and wood.

By the 1980s, Gadani had become one of the top ship-breaking and recycling destinations in the world — along with Chittagong in Bangladesh and Alang-Sosiya in Gujarat, India. (Statistics put together by the ILPI show about 40,000 workers are employed in ship-breaking in Bangladesh and 35,000 in India. Indian ship-breakers are also reported to have dismantled approximately 6,318 ships between 1983 and 2013 — roughly 210 ships a year.)

It is easy to die here — simply by touching the wrong object or by being at the wrong place at the wrong moment.

The number of vessels taken apart by Pakistani ship-breakers reached 110 – the industry’s peak – in 2014, reads the ILPI report. Though this number fell to 81 in 2015, the industry was still employing nearly 12,000 workers and contributing 12 billion rupees annually to Pakistan’s economy in taxes and savings on imports, says the report.

Industry sources put annual steel production, from the breaking of each ship, at 1.2 to 1.5 million tons and that of wood at 15 to 25 tons.

Photograph by Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Photograph by Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Hills rise from the horizon as tumbledown industrial units and congested neighbourhoods of Karachi’s Baldia Town give way to the sparsely populated Lasbela district. The road after passing Hub Chowki winds upwards through an arid landscape. A few adobe settlements show only a few signs of life — some of them seem abandoned. Except for an occasional truck or two, the road hardly has any traffic.

Another world dawns as the road straightens after descending into a plain. Giant sea vessels – containers, cargo ships, oil tankers – dominate the view on the left. The vast colourless barrenness of the desert to the right only further heightens their visual impact — gigantic mechanical contraptions in multiple hues standing mysteriously still, amid the blue waters of the Arabian Sea, with their bows protruding onto the beach. Dead ships waiting at a mortuary for their last rites, a poet would have mused. A cloud of smoke rises from a ship in the distance — as if its pyre is still smouldering.

This is the Gadani ship-breaking yard.

The number of vessels taken apart by Pakistani ship-breakers reached 110 – the industry’s peak – in 2014.

An ominous silence engulfs the whole site on this particular day in the middle of November this year. No clanging of hammers hitting steel plates; no girders and planks crashing down on earth with a heart-rending thud; no workers rushing around, shouting to communicate with each other amid the din. Makeshift eateries and living quarters of the workers that dot the road look mostly deserted.

It is easy to die here — simply by touching the wrong object or by being at the wrong place at the wrong moment. Huge pieces of metal removed from the ship are littered around everywhere, sometimes dangerously towering overhead when you are making your way across a yard. Colossal chains, used for anchoring ships, block your way sometimes. Even asbestos can be spotted attached to pieces of metal.

“Hazardous substances and wastes, as well as physical, mechanical, biological, ergonomic and psychological hazards” are difficult to dodge and duck here, as the ILPI notes in its May 2016 report titled Shipbreaking Practices in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Pakistan generally imports ships that are older, as compared to those that ship-breakers in India get. These older ships, the ILPI points out, “tend to be more dangerous because they contain substances that have since been banned”. The report cites a fact-finding team’s observations from Gadani: “Children were seen playing among asbestos and swimming in water with toxic substances.”

Pieces of metal being pulled using chains | White Star
Pieces of metal being pulled using chains | White Star

The very arrival of a ship at a yard can be hazardous. The most common method of bringing a ship to a yard is what industry insiders call ‘beaching’ — crashing a ship into the beach while its engines are still running. A cargo ship will drive into the beach at five to seven knots per hour, which is slightly less than half its speed in the open sea. A container beaches at 12 to 15 knots per hour, which is slightly above half of its normal speed at sea.

Beaching allows a ship to intrude into the beach just enough so that it “can be dismantled during low tide”. The process, the ILPI report highlights, “poses risks to the environment as well as human health and safety”. The reason: when a heavy ship hits the land, it causes a big jolt that shakes it as well as the beach, making it likely that some hazardous materials either spill over into the sea or hit the workers rushing around to anchor the vessel.

The hazardous materials include 10 to 100 tons of paint (depending on the size of the ship) covering 95 per cent of a ship’s hull, which can come off during beaching. This paint contains such substances as lead, mercury, zinc, arsenic and chromium — all dangerous to human and marine life in varying degrees.

The very arrival of a ship at a yard can be hazardous.

Ship-breakers in Pakistan claim that there have been no beaching-related spillovers in Gadani. Punjwani says international experts who have visited Gadani have found beaching here to be perfectly safe and environment-friendly.

Even if beaching goes fine, as he claims it does, tidal water washes out pollutants produced by ship-breaking from the beach into the sea. The ILPI report underscores that the “emission of toxic gas into the air and the unsound storage of hazardous materials” could easily contaminate sea water, coastal soil, air and groundwater in and around a ship-breaking yard.

Jan Muhammad Baloch has seen a progressively increasing level of pollution, both in the air and the sea, due to the dumping of oil and chemicals extracted during ship-breaking into the sea. This is not only killing the fish but also hurting human health, says Baloch who has worked at Gadani’s fish harbour for decades.

A ship waiting to be beached | Arif Mahmood, White Star
A ship waiting to be beached | Arif Mahmood, White Star

A child born in Gadani, thus, is highly likely to have asthma, says Mehmoodani. His own three-year-old daughter is asthmatic. He lives in Karachi during the winters to keep her away from Gadani, where her ailment worsens during the cold weather.

Mehmoodani, who also works as a trade unionist at the yards, insists that the ship-breakers are required by law to dump hazardous chemicals into empty plots of land in the desert. The government agrees with him.

“During the process of ship breaking/dismantling the waste, hazardous waste or sludge or polychlorinated biphenyls or asbestos etc, shall be disposed of in a manner to ensure Protection of Terrestrial and Marine environment,” reads a provision in the guidelines provided to ship-breakers by the provincial Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Also read: The demise of Pakistan Steel Mills

The agency is also required, under its own guidelines, to monitor the “activities of ship-breaking/dismantling activities on shore or offshore within territorial limit of Balochistan … at least biannually to ensure environmental protection and prevent degradation and pollution”.

Since these two provisions are seldom implemented, as several background interviews reveal, the combined impact of their breach has been anything but benign. “Fishing activities south of Gadani were brought to a stop by pollution from ship-breaking. Marine life has in general decreased as a result of the … industry,” says the ILPI report.

Discarded safety goggles lie in the sand | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
Discarded safety goggles lie in the sand | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Small rooms with painted wooden doors flank the entrance to a ship-breaking yard (or plot). These brick-and-mortar structures are probably used as offices or storerooms. A boundary wall continues where these rooms end, on both sides. The wall then runs along the length and breadth of the yard, except the seaside where a ship is berthed.

Next to the rooms are huts standing on stilts — each measures about eight feet in length, breadth and height. They are as colourless as the rough-hewn wood that they are made from. And they come in all shapes — square, rectangular, semi-circular. The space in front of them is strewn with all kinds of rubbish: plastic bottles, rags, discarded shoes and shopping bags. Right next to the rubbish dump is a well — complete with a periphery wall, a pulley and a rope to fetch water from underground.

As a worker moves among the huts, a dog urinates right next to his passage. A little further away, many puppies frolic on a mattress lying on the sand.

There is sporadic electricity to light the workers’ houses at night, no gas to cook food and, more often than not, no clean water to drink.

It is in these huts that a vast majority of those working at the ship-breaking yards live. Most of the workers hail from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Many others come here to work from Punjab and Sindh. Several Rohingyas, Bengalis and Burmese are also part of the workforce.

Each hut is shared by several workers. When they sleep in its cramped space, they do not have sufficient space to stretch their limbs. Some of them became so sick of having to adjust in such small space that they have built their own huts on the other side of the road. These, too, are humble structures – only a little bigger and cleaner – that in some instances, also house the workers’ families. Workers maintain these huts on their own. The only help they received from the firms that own the yards is the permission to use wood, taken from ships, as the main construction material.

The huts are scattered in irregular clusters around earthen kitchens – walled with reeds, shaded by flimsy roofs and equipped with rickety tables and chairs – that serve as restaurants. There are also a few stalls here that sell items of daily use — from candy to a cooking stove, and everything in between.

A worker operating a blowtorch | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star
A worker operating a blowtorch | Fahim Siddiqui, White Star

Back in June 1978, a report in daily Dawn said Gadani was “facing difficulties due to lack of basic facilities like drinking water, electricity, roads, dispensaries, coupled with frequent shortage of oxygen gas”. In 38 years since then, little seems to have changed. There is sporadic electricity to light the workers’ houses at night, no gas to cook food and, more often than not, no clean water to drink.

Wells inside the yards have water that is often salty. Those living outside the yards either pool in resources to dig a well to cater to the needs of a cluster of hutments (which is a labour-intensive proposition) or they get water from the wells inside the yards (which is often an unavailable option because the yards’ doors are padlocked after sunset). Toilets are actually pit latrines, with no concept of plumbing and drainage.

There could be as many as 25,000 workers here in peak ship-breaking season (as well as their families and hundreds of others working at restaurants and stalls) but there is not a single hospital in the area. Nor a school.

This is the only [industry] in Pakistan where employers, who have the power to hire and fire workers, are [also] leading the [workers’] union.

Their living conditions look good only when compared to their remuneration. The owners of ship-breaking yards employ no one. They engage labour contractors who then hire workers. This system ensures the workers get no perks and privileges beyond their daily wages — no medical coverage, no gratuity, no provident fund, no old-age pension, no earned, paid or even casual leaves. If you do not report to work for any reason, you do not get paid.

What makes this bad situation worse is that labour contractors are also the leaders and officials of the Ship-Breaking Labour Union — a collective bargaining agency (CBA) made by the workers to negotiate the terms and conditions of their work environment with the yard owners. If you need work at a yard through a contractor, you also need to support him as your union representative. If you do not support him, you are highly unlikely to be hired. “We can only hope to get justice when the rule of these contractors is disrupted,” says Islam Sher who first came to work in Gadani from his native Khyber Pakthunkhwa in 1999.

Workers’ rights activists see the situation as an anomaly. “This is the only [industry] in Pakistan where employers, who have the power to hire and fire workers, are [also] leading the [workers’] union,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy general secretary of the National Trade Union Foundation (NTUF), a Pakistan-wide network of industrial workers’ associations. He has been working to develop an independent union at Gadani for a long time now.

Yard workers at Gadani watch the rescue operation under way | White Star
Yard workers at Gadani watch the rescue operation under way | White Star

Many workers say 70 rupees are deducted from their monthly salaries in the name of a union fund, but they do not know where the money goes (if, on average, there are 10,000 workers at the yards each month, their collective monthly contribution to the union fund amounts to 700,000 rupees). It is, at least, not spent on their welfare, many of them complain. When they protest, they are told to either wait for their working conditions to improve or to find work elsewhere.

Haji Abdul Karim Jan – popularly known as Babu Karim Jan – is the most powerful man in the union, though he is not its president (he is the general secretary). A short Pakhtun man with a prominent nose and a flowing hennaed beard, he has been around in Gadani for four decades and has been active in the union since it was registered in May 1981 under the industrial relations law of the time — it became the CBA in 1986 through a referendum. He is widely seen by workers in Gadani as an exploitative labour contractor, who uses his position in the union for his personal financial gain. Some labourers claim that those who try to speak against him or other contractors, either lose their jobs or have to face threats and even violence.

Wearing a skull cap and covering his shoulder with a chequered cloth, Jan dismisses these allegations. “Allah is my witness,” he says, claiming that he always has the workers’ best interests in his heart. “I have never done anything to jeopardise their welfare.” He says he has always strived to improve the working conditions of the labourers. For example, salaries were raised two years ago – something confirmed by workers – as a result of negotiations he made with the ship-breaking companies.

Many workers say 70 rupees are deducted from their monthly salaries in the name of a union fund, but they do not know where the money goes.

Even before he is asked about his role in suppressing the workers’ rights, he is quick to insist that he has never accepted money from ship-breaking companies or government officials to stop workers from protesting over their working conditions. It is this last allegation that the NTUF cites when it talks about its twice-failed attempts to register another union. Muhammad Rafiq Baloch, a senior NTUF official, claims government officials took money from ship-breaking firms and contractors to deregister the new union on two occasions, after first registering it.

Haji Mehrban Shah, joint secretary of the CBA, on the other hand, insists that the deregistrations were based on valid grounds. The new union did not have legally sufficient members to be officially recognised. Many workers affiliated with the NTUF union are not active in ship-breaking yards, he claims.

That could have been true in the past. In May this year, the NTUF successfully got official registration for what it has named as the Ship-breaking Workers Union Gadani. Its next demand is a referendum to choose a new CBA. To make that happen, it requires proving that it has enough members, under the Balochistan Industrial Relations Act, who support the idea of a fresh referendum.

Whether the referendum will change anything for the better is anybody’s guess.

Workers climb up into a beached ship | Arif Mahmood, White Star
Workers climb up into a beached ship | Arif Mahmood, White Star

Mohammad Amir and another worker were helping a blowtorch operator at one of the yards about three years ago. The operator was cutting through metallic trash – cans, bottles and boxes – when the fire from the torch hit a small pressurised cylinder. The cylinder blew up with a small explosion. A ball of fire hit the torch operator, Amir and his co-worker. All three were injured.

The fire singed Amir’s whole face except his eyes. He recalls peeling off burnt skin from his face with his hands — his cheeks still carry scars left by the accident.

Amir, who appears to be in his late twenties and comes from Muzaffargarh district in Punjab, took a local bus to reach the government-run Jam Ghulam Qadir Hospital in Hub where he received some initial treatment. After three days, he shifted to Rehman Hospital, a private medical facility, in Karachi. (The hospital is as ill-equipped as any government facility and is owned by the father-in-law of unionist Jan’s son, claims Mehmoodani.)

[Haji Abdul Karm Jan] is widely seen by workers in Gadani as an exploitative labour contractor, who uses his position in the union for his personal financial gain.

Amir received no financial help from his employer for his treatment.

Mohammad Akhtar, a thirty-something native of Nawabshah district in Sindh, tells a similar tale. He was working with a blowtorch operator a couple of years ago, when a piece of metal fell on him. His foot was hurt badly. He recalls lying in his hut with an injured limb for two weeks without any help from his employer. He could get treatment only after he had received his salary.

Almost all the workers interviewed at the yards also complain the ship-breaking companies do not provide adequate safety equipment to them. Some firms provide nothing more than gloves and goggles — no helmets, no dungarees, no rubber shoes. In some cases, gloves are replaced only once a month, even though they wear out in just two weeks. Anyone who wants a new pair before the month ends is turned away, says Akhtar.

Workers often cannot even afford buying their own dungarees and rubber shoes — the latter alone can cost as much as 500 rupees per pair. (Company owners such as Punjwani deny these allegations. They say workers themselves do not want to put on safety gear such as helmets and dungarees because of the harsh, hot weather at the yards.)

Also read: The great divide- Politics for the poor has gone out of fashion

Accidents – and sometimes deadly ones at that – are common at the yards because of the lack of safety measures, says Mohammad Salim Baloch, who works at the local NTUF office at Gadani. But, he says, the employers do not really bother much about them. “If someone dies in the evening, the next morning work will restart as if nothing has happened.”

There is no consolidated and verifiable data on accidents at Gadani but there is evidence to suggest that he may not be exaggerating. “In 2012, a Pakistani trade union recorded 12 deaths in ship-breaking yards,” says the ILPI report. As many as “15 workers were injured” in two accidents of an “unknown nature” in October 2014, the report adds.

Evidence from elsewhere, however, suggests the industry’s safety record in Pakistan may not be that bad. The ILPI report says 90 workers died in Chittagong’s ship-breaking yards between 2005 and 2012. It adds: five workers were killed and 12 others were injured there in various accidents in 2014 alone; in the first four months of 2016, seven more workers lost their lives in accidents. The report also says that 470 workers have died in Indian yards between 2005 and 2012.

Ship-breaking is certainly “one of the most hazardous occupations” for a reason.

Smoke billows from MT Aces | White Star
Smoke billows from MT Aces | White Star

Meer Hassan and Khudadad, two young men from Gadani, climbed the deck of MT Aces, an oil container berthed at one of the yards, late at night on October 30, 2016. They were to sleep there along with 14 other men so that they could start draining oil from the tank just below the deck, first thing in the morning. When the workers woke up the next day, some of them climbed down to get breakfast for themselves; others waited for them to return, collecting tools and preparing for a long day.

At about 9:40 am, they heard a rumble beneath their feet. Then the world around them went dark, covered in thick smoke. There were two explosions immediately afterwards — so loud that they were heard all over the coastline. Many heard the blasts and saw plumes of smoke emerging from the ship, but they could do little except watch from the distance as the ship burned — with an unknown number of workers trapped inside it.

The lone fire engine at the local fire station was too inadequate to put out the fire. Mohammad Aziz, who works as a firefighter at the station, recalls being at his home in a nearby village when he heard the blasts. He immediately rushed to the site of the accident and could see only chaos and destruction. The explosions had sent huge pieces of burning metal flying across many hundred metres. He spotted people trapped beneath them.

Many of the injured tell stories of shifting from one hospital to the other — mostly on government expense and in Edhi ambulances.

Workers on the deck flew through the air – some landing hard on the ground, others thrown into the sea – as a result of the blasts. Eyewitnesses say there were burnt bodies and severed limbs scattered as far as across the road from the yard.

Hassan and Khudadad survived; one with a broken leg and burns, the other with burns on his back and arms. They jumped off the ship into the shallow sea waters and swam to safety. So did their paternal cousins Tahir Abbas and Mohammad Fayaz – both natives of Muzaffargarh district – though in a more prolonged and painful way.

They were working in the engine room when the explosions took place. The ship shook, debris flew around them and the room was filled with dust. Abbas thought a cylinder had burst somewhere in the ship. Fayaz believed someone had attacked the vessel. They made their way to the deck, only to realise that a fire had engulfed the entire ship. The two tied a rope to a railing, flung it overboard and started climbing down the rope. Many others were doing the same. At one stage, Fayaz claims, there were many ropes hanging down from the ship with more than one person holding on to them.

Abbas remembers how he jumped into the sea but found no one nearby to rescue him. He swam to safety on his own after struggling with waves for thirty minutes. He was lucky to escape with just a broken finger.

Also read: Occupational hazard

Fayaz and some others were reluctant to jump down. He could spot some launches coming towards the ship to rescue trapped workers (about 10 sent from Gadani fish harbour; one from a neighbouring yard). Due to heat and smoke, launch operators were finding it impossible to get near the ship. He shouted as loudly as he could to attract their attention. Fayaz says he swung around the side of the burning ship for nearly two hours. At around noon, a launch finally managed to come close to where he was and he jumped into it to reach the shore.

Many of the injured tell stories of shifting from one hospital to the other — mostly on government expense and in Edhi ambulances. None of them acknowledges having received any financial help or compensation from the employers or the yard owner.

Compensation or no compensation, they must count themselves lucky: they have fractured bones, burnt limbs and injured bodies but they are still alive. As many as 26 people were confirmed dead after the rescuers had finished their work two days later. Some remain missing even today.

One of the missing is 30-year-old Mohammad Shafique, a resident of New Karachi. He called his mother, Saira Bano, from a friend’s phone a day before the accident and promised to send her money. She has been waiting for any news about him since she heard of the accident, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Shafique’s family has made several trips to different hospitals and Edhi centres around the city, looking for his body. Bano’s wait is not over yet.

MT Aces burns in the yard | White Star
MT Aces burns in the yard | White Star

Ijaz Ahmed left Shamorghar, his scenic village in Bebavar area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Upper Dir district, in late October 2016 for Gadani. The 25-year old had plans to marry the love of his life after coming back from the yards a few months later. He wanted to bring back enough money to have a happy wedding. His family, as well as that of his fiancée’s, did not oppose their union even though pre-marital emotional attachment is not seen positively in their conservative Pakhtun community. He came back home dead.

Gul Ameem of the same village was working as a labourer in Saudi Arabia when he picked up his cell phone on the evening of November 2, 2016, to call his son Alauddin who was employed at Gadani ship-breaking yards. The call could not go through. Ameem called his brother-in-law who was also in Gadani. He was told about the explosions. He was also told that Alauddin was missing. A few hours later, his brother-in-law informed Ameem that his son was no more. He had to rush back to his village to attend Alauddin’s funeral prayers.

Ameem never wanted his young son – married only six months earlier – to work in Gadani. “I used to tell him to stop going to Gadani and focus on finding work as a home painter in Upper Dir.” Before leaving for Gadani this work season, Alauddin promised his parents that this would be his last stint at the yards. “He honoured his words,” says his father.

The major reason for the accident is that the yard’s management failed to follow official protocols, says NTUF’s Mansoor.

Almost everyone from Shamorghar who worked in Gadani has come back home since work at the shipyards has been called off. They are highly unlikely to find any gainful employment in their native area, though. With meagre cultivation of maize and wheat crop, the local economy cannot sustain its population. Most young and able-bodied men from the area, therefore, leave their villages to find work in other parts of the country. “At the age of 10 to 12, our children go to Dir to work; at 15, they go to Kashmir and Abbottabad [to earn money]. When they get a bit strong, they end up in Gadani,” says Muhammad Raziq, vice chairman of a local union council in Mango Dargai in Tormang area in Upper Dir.

In Gadani, a worker can easily earn 1,050 rupees a day, says Sajjad Ahmed, Alauddin’s elder brother who has also worked in ship-breaking yards in the recent past. In Dir, he says, a labourer can hardly get 500 rupees per day and work in their native area is not available on a regular basis.

Gul Badshah, too, used to work in Gadani two years ago, but now he drives a taxi in his village, earning about 1,000 rupees a day. In winters, when snow covers the area and his daily income goes down sharply, sometimes he rues his decision to come back.

“These are the compulsions that force us to send our youth to Gadani,” says Ahmed.

The burnt remains of MT Aces | Ayesha binte Rashid
The burnt remains of MT Aces | Ayesha binte Rashid

MT Aces, a Japanese-built, 24,000-ton oil tanker, continued to smoudler many days after the explosions — like an out-of-order machine coughing up smoke before coming to a halt. The blasts and the fire have left it hollow and divided it into almost equal halves, still joined at the bottom. Its heavy metal beams are curved at the edges like burnt paper — so intense was the fire that hit them.

MT Aces belongs to one Abdul Ghafoor, the proprietor of a firm called Ghafoor and Company. He remains in hiding, though a case of criminal negligence has been lodged against him, and at least two of his employees are in police custody in Hub. Gul Zameen, the manager of the yard who died during the accident, was the only one who knew how many workers were there on the ship on that fateful morning. In the absence of verifiable statistics, estimates vary from a few score to a few hundred.

The explosions and the fire on MT Aces could have been avoided. An internationally accepted legal framework does exist to prevent such accidents. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has drawn up guidelines – titled Safety and Health in Shipbreaking for Asian Countries and Turkey – that delineate those parts of the framework that concern the workers’ rights. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal – agreed in 1992 and ratified by Pakistan – offers “some control of the risks related to the hazardous materials contained in the old ships sold for recycling”. (The convention has not “entered into force, due to it not being ratified by three-fourths of the parties who have accepted it”.)

MT Aces belongs to one Abdul Ghafoor, the proprietor of a firm called Ghafoor and Company. He remains in hiding.

The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, adopted in May 2009, similarly provides for regulations to ensure that ship recycling does not affect human health or the environment. (None of the three South Asian countries with ship-breaking industries has ratified it.)

Even without these international conventions, many government agencies in Pakistan have the mandate to monitor and regulate work at the ship-breaking yards. Nasrullah Zehri, the BDA manager at Hub, explains: Customs officials assess and examine the vessels as soon as they beach, charging 8,000 rupees per ton of their weight in taxes; the EPA sends in a team to examine the amount of sludge and hazardous material on a ship and subsequently issues or denies a no-objection certificate, depending on the vessel’s condition; the labour department ensures that workers receive their safety equipment and wages, as mandated by the Factories Act of 1934; the BDA issues a no-objection certificate after ensuring that the ship-breaking firm has fulfilled all legal requirements for the import of a vessel (the authority charges 50 rupees per ton of a vessel’s weight as its fee).

What, then, caused the accident last month, on November 1?

Workers lift pieces of metal using a crane | Fahim Siddiqui. White Star
Workers lift pieces of metal using a crane | Fahim Siddiqui. White Star

The major reason for the accident is that the yard’s management failed to follow official protocols, says NTUF’s Mansoor. Every beached vessel must first be air-cleaned to rid it of poisonous and flammable materials, he says. Oil or sludge that remains on the ship must be cleaned out before dismantling can start. This cleaning, he says, is important because the use of blowtorches in metal cutting makes it necessary that there are no flammable substances and gases nearby.

Once cleaning has been carried out, the government agencies – such as the Customs, EPA and BDA – are informed, so that they inspect the vessel and issue documents, approving or denying dismantling. Interviews with various department officials suggest that MT Aces had not gone through this mandatory inspection and documentation. The yard manager seems to have decided to start dismantling the ship even while the cleaning and clearing out processes were still going on. The consequences were only predictably disastrous.

A video documentary, Echoes of Ship Breaking, produced by an Indian media house in 2014, includes an interview with Dr Geetanjoy Sahu, an assistant professor at TATA Institute of Social Sciences. “There are a number of governing challenges as far as the management of the ship-breaking industry is concerned,” he says in the interview. “1) Environmental laws and labour laws have been violated regularly and consistently over the last 30 years. Even the Supreme Court directions and recommendations made by the inter-ministerial committee for the safety of the workers as well as to take preventative measures have not been implemented consistently; 2) There are multiple authorities which are operating both at the state level and at the central level without any coordination. For example you have the Gujarat Maritime Board, you have the Pollution Control Board, you have a coastal control authority, a health department, you have a labour department at the state level and then you have minister for environment and forest and minister of steel, minister of shipping ... they all function without any [coordination] ... this allows the ship-breaking industry to exploit the situation and not to give any adequate attention [to] the workers’ rights.”

Change the names of the places and the institutions and this all could well be true for Gadani ship-breaking yards as well. It was more than obvious last month, during a November 21 visit by senior government officials to the site of the accident.

About nine cars rolled into the plot where MT Aces is berthed. A bevy of officials from the Balochistan government descended the vehicles. It was the first visit by Planning and Development Minister Dr Hamed Khan Achakzai to the site of the accident. He did not do much beyond standing near the ship for 20 minutes or so and speaking briefly to the workers gathered there.

Many government agencies in Pakistan have the mandate to monitor and regulate work at the ship-breaking yards.

Minutes later, he drove to a nearby rest house where Akbar Durrani, provincial finance secretary and also the head of the committee investigating the accident, had also arrived. Various rooms and corridors of the rest house were filled with workers, union leaders, government officials and members of the Ship-breaking Owner’s Association, all there to testify before Durrani. An industry virtually left to its own devices was suddenly under immense scrutiny.

After hearing everyone’s version, Durrani offered his own analysis. It was an obvious one. The government departments should have been more proactive, he said, especially when it comes to safeguarding the labourers’ rights. Gadani must be developed and adequate health and safety facilities should be provided for the benefit of workers and residents of the area, he added.

Once upon a time, there were only wood and wooden ships in the sea. Of late, there have been dead bodies, too. Durrani’s proposals seem to be the minimum to ensure that this does not happen again.

Additional reporting by Momina Khan

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writers are staffers at the Herald.