Monday, February 13, 2006

Princes and Paupers

Bhavnagar street scene

At the start of my exploration into the shipping world, I made two trips to India to visit the shipbreaking yards in Alang, located on the Bay of Khambhat in the northwestern part of the country. Each time I stayed in the nearby city of Bhavnagar, an industrial centre of a half million where Mahatma Gandhi went to university. It’s a typically chaotic Indian city, home to diamond cutters and salt merchants, as well as the newer shipbreaking elites. I never quite got a sense of the place, but I really only slept and ate there; it was merely a home base for the six weeks spent doing research.

For most of the time I was in Bhavnagar, I was sequestered in what had once been a Maharajah’s palace, originally built in the 1850’s and replete with peacocks wandering the grounds, an enclosed courtyard and the stuffed heads of various trophy kills presumably bagged by royalty.

As nice as that may sound, the palace cum hotel – “the grandest one in Bhavnagar”, I was assured – offered up crumbling plaster, specious electricity, a kitchen of supremely bland abilities and, in my case, a bathroom invaded by ants. The ants, oddly, didn’t really bother me: they seemed to appear on alternate days, trekking across a corner of the tiled room while migrating between places unseen.

Indeed, after a while I came to look upon the insects and their dogged crossings with a certain glee, their routine something to be favoured. Until, that is, I returned to my hotel room one day to find an older worker within. He spoke no English, but bowed deeply to me as he quietly exited, a can of aerosol spray clutched in one hand. The smell of fumigation permeated the room, so much so that I ignored the air conditioner and opened the windows to air the place. And as I listened to the peacocks squawking in the courtyard outside, I knew my ants would not be returning.

Staying in a former palace, even a rundown one, could sometimes create a sense of guilt on my part. This was because every day I ventured into the shipbreaking yards of Alang, I came face to face with the poverty in which most of the migrant workers lived. There are over 30,000 labourers populating Alang and the vast majority sleeps in modest shacks that are crowded close by the main street – the only street – that services the yards. These hovels, usually about the size of a garden shed, are cobbled together from plywood, sheet metal and anything else scavenged from the ships being desiccated on the beaches. Half dozen or more men will be crammed into the huts, sleeping on hard platforms in dark, sweaty conditions. A single bare bulb may provide some light, the electricity pirated from the local power grid.

For months on end, these shantytowns will be the only place that men from all over India can retire to at the end of a backbreaking day of work. It’s a filthy place – there’s no running water and the men use the adjacent fields as a toilet – but there is a sense of community to be found among the huts. The workers gather at the cookhouses and tea stands to chat and relax; they wander to the phone kiosks to call family; and on Sundays they enjoy their day off just as most others do. Some sleep in, others do laundry and eventually it seems all gather at the impromptu flea market that takes over the main street.

Sunday morning in the shantytown of Alang

Easily the most noticeable thing I discovered in Alang was the desire of individuals to be treated with dignity. Their lives were hard, physically and emotionally, far beyond anything I’d ever seen. They even had a phrase, “A ship a day, a death a day”, to encapsulate life in the shipbreaking yards. But the workers at Alang accepted that this was their lot in life. And, for many, it was a good life: they could make three or four times more money here than in their home villages, even if an entry-level position here makes the equivalent of less than eighteen cents (U.S.) an hour.

But these Indians – teenagers, widows, husbands, and fathers – welcomed me into their homes and into their lives. As we shared cups of masala chai, it was clear that pity was not a part of their vocabulary. None would ever sleep in a maharajah’s palace, but none cared. They would do the work assigned to them, toil in the heat, risk their lives, scar their bodies and take their meager pay and dream of returning home to settle down. In return, all they asked was to be accorded respect for their travails. Nothing more, nothing less.

The shipbreakers of Alang taught me an invaluable lesson, one that would extend to so many others who make their lives from ships and the sea.

Shipbreakers at their homes in Alang

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