The ship-breaking industry surely has its contribution to the economy, notwithstanding its built-in hazards -- environmental or otherwise. But no in-depth study or research work has been done yet to weigh pros and cons of the industry that has expanded at a fast pace. From the perspective of the economic gains, the ship-breaking sector may be rewarding enough, for it saves the basic cost of production of steel, but undoubtedly it is hurting the country's environment and posing a grave threat to the workers involved in it. It is, thus, important to ensure maximum economic benefit, causing minimum possible damage to the environment and workers' physical well-being.
According to a report published in this paper recently, Bangladesh has now become the biggest dumping ground for end-of-life ships. The ship-breaking practices here has been termed 'dirty and dangerous' in a report released by the campaign group 'Ship-breaking Platform' amid growing concerns about the environmental and labour standards. The country scrapped one-fourth of the ships dismantled worldwide in 2017 and topped the global list ahead of India in terms of gross tonnage. The report expressed concern at the severe pollution of the marine environment, hazardous waste dumping, appalling working conditions causing fatal accidents and employment of child labourers. It lamented that laws and rules to protect both the workers and the environment are poorly enforced. The industry insiders however claim that labour and environmental practices have improved in the past few years and many manual works have been automated. They also point out that around 30 per cent of raw materials for rerolling mills are supplied from ship-breaking and the price of steel would have risen considerably in its absence. Besides, ship recycling also recovers substantial quantities of non-ferrous metals, machines, pipes, chains, boats, anchors and propellers. Besides, over 50 thousand people are employed directly or indirectly in the industry.
It may be recalled that the Bangladesh Ship Recycling Act 2018 was passed by parliament in January this year as a follow-up to Bangladesh Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules 2011. If properly implemented, the act and rules could have served as a robust regulatory framework for bringing discipline to the sector. The act provided for adherence to relevant international laws and conventions including the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009. But Bangladesh has not yet become a signatory to this convention. The act also made life insurance for workers mandatory and provided for the establishment of a zone in Chittagong for the ship recycling industry. But not much progress has been observed in these areas until now. The law provided for the setting up of a 13-member board for overseeing the activities of the industry, but nothing as yet has been heard about its formation. The Ministry of Industries has been implementing a project titled 'Safe and Environmentally Sound Ship Recycling in Bangladesh' since July 2014, but its role in bringing about desired improvement is not at all visible. The High Court Division had passed an order disallowing import of end-of-life vessels without cleaning hazardous materials like Asbestos. But that also appears to be blissfully ignored by the relevant authorities.
While strict enforcement of rules, laws, conventions and verdicts relevant to ship-breaking industry is necessary, it remains equally important to remind the authorities concerned about the possible solutions to the challenges confronting this sector. These are: reducing the risks to workers and environment posed by unsafe dismantling practices; providing safe storage, transport and disposal options for hazardous materials; creating scope for financing and managing investments through public-private partnerships; and cleaning up ships prior to starting any breaking or recycling activity. Whether the authorities will live up to the expectation or not remains to be seen.
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