Gadani the graveyard

Published: November 6, 2016
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The writer is the former editor of The Express Tribune. He tweets as @tribunian

The writer is the former editor of The Express Tribune. He tweets as @tribunian

The death toll from the explosion and fire at Gadani ship-breaking yard last week has risen to 26. More than 50 others were wounded in the incident when a gas cylinder exploded and started a fire inside an oil tanker at one of the yards.

The tragic incident at Gadani received little or no attention for the first few days in the national media. It was only after the death toll started to rise and the dharna fever subsided following the U-turn by Imran Khan that the nation finally turned its attention to this incident.  Even then, the real questions are not being asked.

What is sad is that till now, no senior government official has deemed it necessary to visit the site and see for themselves what the conditions are at Gadani. The Balochistan government remains painfully silent.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did what he usually does – set up a “high powered committee’ (whatever that means) to investigate the causes of the fire. A meeting of the committee we are told took place in Karachi on Saturday and said it would finalize its report in a week. Nothing will come out of it.

It does not take an expert to understand why the accident took place in Gadani and the only mystery is why more have not taken place so far. In fact, locals tell you that the death toll in Gadani remains consistently high but is hushed up by operators of the ship-breaking yards who themselves continue to struggle for their survival.

Workers operate in sub-human conditions. Many live in temporary huts located on the side of the yards where there is no power or water. There are no medical facilities available on site. In fact, there are barely facilities available here at all, and the nearest town is several miles away. The government has set up some offices but these remain closed on most days.

What is more worrisome is that the workers at these yards work without any safety precautions or equipment. There is no effort on the part of the federal government or the Balochistan government to try and ensure any operating standards. It is not that the state apparatus is missing. Many have been employed by the government to inspect, supervise or assist in the workings of the yards here. After all, the government – both at the federal and provincial level, earn millions through taxes and duties. But it gives little back.

Ship-breakers recall the “golden years” of the ’70s and ’80s when
ship-breaking activity was at its peak in Gadani. Hundreds of ships were broken down here and this was one of the world’s largest ship-breaking yards. The steel that was taken out of the ships was then used by the domestic steel industry and a hundred other items from the ships were taken out and resold at various markets in Balochistan and Karachi.

But the rise in the power of Nawaz Sharif led to the decline of the fortunes of Gadani. Sharif’s family business is steel and for him these yards proved to be direct competition and owing to this, political mentor Ziaul Haq imposed duties to ensure that Gadani became economically unviable. The duties were raised so high that local ship-breakers were unable to bid competitively in the international market. This graveyard of ships slowly turned into a graveyard itself.

Thousands of jobs affiliated directly and indirectly to this industry came to a halt. There was an outcry but the government at the centre was unmoved. Gradually, most of the bigger ship-breakers closed down their business and let the smaller ones take over. These days Gadani is a far cry from what it once used to be. Businessmen have to be innovate. It is believed that the tankers that are imported also come with a certain amount of fuel which is then sold in the black market. Some argue that that is how these companies now stay afloat.

Most ship-breakers now cut costs. Safety equipment or health requirements are not met. The government looks the other way as officials are notoriously corrupt. Keeping aside the environmental questions that a ship-breaking yard raises, there are many issues that remain unaddressed. The question is, for how long can we continue like this?

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2016.

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