RUST AND SWEAT
At first I was observing them, sitting on a pier by the Sadar Ghat, the port of Dhaka. Observing those huge and fascinating cetaceans from afar. Those rusted carcasses lying between the mist, on the opposite bank of the Buriganga River. One morning at sunrise, however, I made the decision to go over there.
There’s nothing better than a dozen of extra-sweet chai (that cost me six dental cavities in a few weeks), chatting, laughter and mandatory handshakes to get to know someone who for sure knows someone else who knows how to bring you to where you want to go. A couple of hours later, I was in the labyrinth of shacks of Char Kaliganj slum and home to one of the largest shipyards in Asia.
Now I could go deeper in the graveyard into the life of these people and look closely at those giant skeletons submerged with tireless workers intent on dismantling them. Relentless like ants while attacking a sugar cube. Air filled with the strong odor of diesel fuel, feet dipped in the mud, faces embraced by the cutting torch gas and hands that for years, or perhaps since forever, have been impregnated with oil and rust.
Up above, against the sun, the silhouette of funambulists strolling along the high sides of the ship decks. The only protection they can rely on is their own balance. The noise is incredibly loud. Looks like time is marked by thousands of hammers banging incessantly against the bodies of these huge ships to remove the rust.
Rusty, old supertanker ships come to die in this place when their lives as vessels on the ocean expire. They have a lifespan of 25 to 30 years before corrosion, metal fatigue and luck of parts render them uneconomical to run. Ship breaking allows the materials from the ship, especially steel, to be recycled and made into new products resurrecting and giving new life to these old mammoths.
Once the ship is driven right up onto the riverside, its liquids are siphoned out, including any remaining diesel fuel, engine oil, and firefighting chemicals, which are then resold. Portions carelessly flow inside the Buriganga River, the lifeline of the city, so that day by day it’s getting increasingly polluted and making life riskier for the people nearby.
After the ship has been reduced to a carcass, swarms of laborers start to use hammers and acetylene torches to tear huge pieces of metal apart from the vessel, until everything is removed and sold to salvage dealers: from enormous engines, batteries, generators, and miles of copper wiring to the crew bunks, portholes, lifeboats, and electronic dials on the bridge. Everything is reused, including the last screw and bolt.
The work is extremely difficult, and low-paid workers face significant risks from the dangerous conditions and exposure to materials like asbestos and heavy metals. It is considered one of the world’s most dangerous industries and very labor-intensive. Ship breaking is a challenging process, due to the structural complexity of the ships and the environmental, safety and health issues involved.
Somebody lacks a finger, someone else an eye. Many of them have hands and arms dotted with deep, jagged scars.
“Here we call them ship-tattoos” says Shihab (58) that is sitting close to me in a chai-shop.
“It sounds like a good business until one day you start counting your scars and you realize your body is full of them. The same scars that cover our land that is already soaked by poisons.”
“In your country you don’t let people pollute your land by breaking up ships on your beaches. Why is it fine for poor workers to risk their lives to dispose of your unwanted ships here?” he asks.
Char Kaliganj employ around 15 thousand souls like Shihab that work to both break down massive shipping vessels as well as create new ships from the parts. The majority live in filthy and hazardous circumstances, but for them it is in any case a livelihood, an opportunity. They have skinny bodies. Bones barely covered by tendons and skin.
The age of laborers ranges from 8 to 80 and they all work together. The work is hard, crude, dirty and dangerous but it gives thousands of them employment and wages to
feed their families. Children are missing out on formal education, but there aren’t any other options other than work for money and help their families.
Among the most unthinkable activities, the manufacturing of ship propellers is the one that impressed me the most. First, bare hand molds are created with a compound made from sand and ash. After being heated for a long time with blow torches and closed, inside is poured the liquid bronze obtained from the fusion of scraps of old propellers.
Amir (11) works here since he was 3 years old, manufacturing ship propellers from liquid bronze obtained from the fusion of scraps of old propellers:
“I was born here and I work in this place on a daily basis. There are no days off or holidays and sometimes I miss school and my friends, but it is my job to help and take care of my family and I’m proud I can help my father to pay the agent who gave us the loan to buy our house.”