The Ghost Acres of Gujarat
vol. 3, August/September 2021
Historian Thomas Finger examines how the landscape of Tulare, which fed the Yokuts people, was transformed during the second half of the nineteenth century to feed the growing population of Manchester. His telling essay is about food history, Yokuts women’s knowledge and experience, violent encroachment, greedy prospectors, capitalism, crooked land schemes, genocide, the settler population, environmental changes, unjust food systems, nutrition, gender roles in nineteenth-century England, and more.
As I read, I couldn’t help but think about the origins of a different kind of ghost acre: the Alang shipbreaking yards in the northwestern state of Gujarat, India. Along the Gulf of Cambay, in the Bhavnagar district, obsolete vessels are beached at high tides for scrapping. Seafaring vessels are the biggest of all man-made moving objects. An estimated 45,000 of them currently operate on the world’s seas. Their average commercial lifespan is 25 to 30 years, after which maintaining them effectively and operating them profitably becomes uneconomical, and an average of 700 ships are sent for scrapping every year. Once a defunct vessel reaches Alang’s territorial waters, migrant workers take it apart bolt by bolt, rivet by rivet, to its very last valuable ounce of metal.
The shipbreaking industry in Gujarat began with the beaching of a Russian dry cargo ship, the M. V. Kota Tenjong, on February, 13, 1983. It’s now a full time activity, making Alang the world’s largest maritime graveyard.
How did a small village in northwestern India end up being home to the world’s largest shipbreaking industry? The answer lies partly in Alang’s significant geographical advantages, which include a proximity to main eastbound trade routes, high tidal range, a 15° slope that makes it easier for ships to run aground, and a rocky bottom surface. And it lies partly in industrial capitalism and its logic of profit maximization; the shipbreaking industry relocates to wherever it is easiest to externalize its social and environmental costs.
The shipbreaking industry was first developed in the U.S., the UK, and Japan during the Second World War — a huge number of ships had been damaged and there was an urgent demand for steel. In the 1970s to the 1980s, it moved to less-industrialized European countries likeSpain and Italy, and then to Asia: Taiwan and South Korea. By 1991, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan were the leading shipbreaking countries, taking 70% of all tonnage demolished worldwide. The rising demand for steel in developing domestic markets, lax environmental regulations, lack of awareness about the hazards of toxic waste, and a cheap workforce have complemented and further strengthened this relocation from the Global North to the Global South.
The concept of “ghost acres” originated with the nineteenth century British industrialization that depended upon resources provided by land outside the U.K. Alang is a modern-day hazardous ghost acre: a site where hazardous waste disposal happens so countries in the Global North don’t have to deal with the toxicity and burden their own populations with it. The emergence of hazardous “ghost acres” is directly linked to industrial countries’ turn toward environmentalism in the 1970s. As the adverse impacts of hazardous waste disposal became a must-address problem, these countries turned to the easy solution: dump it, and relocate the disposal industries to somewhere else. In this case, that meant countries in the Global South with laxer environmental, labor, and waste management regulations.
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The introduction to the origins of the Alang shipbreaking yards is an invitation to consider how waste is conceived in distant ghost acres and how it relocates based on changes in environmental and labor regulations. Opponents of the shipbreaking industry see the export of end-of-life vessels for scrapping to South Asian countries as the externalization of hazardous waste. There are hazardous substances found inside the sturdy steel bodies of ships: vessels built before the 1980s, in particular, were made with asbestos, heavy metals, PCBs, TBT, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and radioactive materials. The shipbreaking yards have been considered “sacrifice spots” or “peripheral zones.” Industry proponents highlight the job creation for migrant workers and prospects for economic development; shipbreaking in Gujarat generates large quantities of re-rollable steel and accounts for 15% of the country’s total steel output. It thus acts as an alternative to the non-renewable resource of ore, while representing a valuable source of supply for second-hand goods. Despite the disagreements, there is a prevailing consensus that scrapping the end-of-life ships reduces greenhouse emissions, and pollution, and the need to mine of iron ores and precious metals.
But there are costs.
Alang and Tulare are both distant ghost acres; one feeds the Global North, the other is fed by it. The workers in Alang take on a disproportionate burden of toxic waste, while the local economy feeds on the commodification of hazardous materials, the creation of employment opportunities, and the steel and second-hand materials extracted from the bodies of the defunct vessels. While the Global North is dependent on the South Asian shipbreaking yards for removing unwanted fleet tonnage from the global market, the Global South voluntarily takes the work because of postcolonial dependency in emerging economies. The impact of colonialism unfurls on land worldwide, an ongoing project.
Ayushi Dhawan is working toward a Ph.D. at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, in Munich, Germany. She is a part of the Emmy Noether Research Group “Hazardous Travels Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy,” funded by the German Research Foundation, where her work centers on hazardous waste trade, social inequalities, scrap recycling, and environmental activism. Her book manuscript is entitled Bringing Toxins Ashore: India’s Shipbreaking Business and the ‘Right to Pollute’ focuses on the Alang-Sosiya shipbreaking yards in Gujarat, and her work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Persistance of Technology: Histories of Repair, Reuse and Disposal, The SAGE Handbook of Global Social Theory, Soapbox Journal for Cultural Analysis, Environmental History Now, Seeing the Woods, and Environment & Society Portal. She enjoys volunteering at animal shelters, playing board games, and baking.