When the latest annual Review of Maritime Transport published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) observes that Bangladesh was a burying ground for more than one-fourth of the world's total tonnage of vessels meant for demolition in 1971, it should not elate the nation. The share of oil tankers in scrapping showed a sharp rise the world over against a slow-down in breaking of dilapidated ships. The pattern was the same in Bangladesh with more than half of the total tonnage coming from oil tankers. The UNCTAD reviews the situation in the interest of understanding the global business trend. But how does Bangladesh react to its large share in the world's total ship-breaking? Breakable ships' share fell because of the increase in the tonnage price from US$400 to $450. The reason why the country went for the option of breaking ships is to feed the rerolling mills for production of billets. But reportedly, India and China have emerged as viable alternative sources of raw materials for the country's rerolling mills.
It is this last piece of news that should be savouring enough. Why? The answer is straight and simple. That ship-breaking is an industry is a misnomer. How can scrapping of ships be an industry? This tiny land has not only imported old ships but along with them agents of death in the form of chemicals and radio-active substances of the highest grade. Environmentalists raised their voices time and again against ships not cleared of harmful agents they carried in them. But it was at the time of arrival of a ship known for contamination with nuclear fuel that the protest was vociferous. But then nothing was heard about it. What happened to that ship?
This country could do without promoting this 'dirty' and 'dangerous', as the international campaign group called Shipbreaking Platform has described it, business. Entrepreneurs have successfully built ships for export to some Western countries. When a country can achieve the capability of constructing ships that meet the demands of countries in Europe, it is a sure sign of the country's technological might. A heavy industry, shipbuilding was an exclusive preserve for a handful of countries in the world. Bangladesh has joined the small bandwagon and it should shift its attention to this industry instead of inviting environmental disaster on account of rejected vessels full of dangerous contents.
People involved with ship-breaking claim that working conditions at breaking yards have improved significantly. It may be true to some extent, because tragic deaths of workers are no longer reported as often as it was done earlier. This does not mean that the standard of working condition is comparable with that of an advanced country providing safety and immunity from chemicals and radioactive agents, if any. The coastal waters and waters deep into the sea have been badly polluted. There is hardly any test of the quality of sea water there. Today the water of the Buriganga has become so polluted that it is untreatable by any device. The sea water of the ship-breaking area is already poisoned and it may turn from bad to worse. Before this happens, the exercise should be limited to the minimum and ultimately given up.
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