It’s 10.00am. The signal bars on your cell phone screen play hide and seek, the car’s FM radio has been dead for a while with the clanging and banging on iron being the only sounds that reach your ears as you make the bumpy ride towards the shipyards in Gadani.
You suddenly swerve to one side of the road as a truck with a ship’s massive plumbing passes by you. The rusting steel is still hot and steaming from the cutting torch. From the heavy loads being carried on the roads atop trucks, the condition of the road surface is hardly a surprise.
You also cross several small wooden roadside tea stalls with workers in greasy overalls, and protective wielding goggles pulled over their heads or hanging around their necks sipping a cup of tea or a enjoying a humble meal, if the place offers that too.
The stalls are all made of wood scraps from ships. Some doors also have a pothole where there must have been a brass or aluminium window at some point in time before they were used in the stalls. An Iranian and Saudi Arabian flag laid out as shade above a bench or fluttering about on a rickety crooked pole near a tandoor are some of the other remnants put to use.
The oil and rust has turned the soil at the shipyards a deep shade of brown but the water is crystal clear with many seashells washed up on the beach. “We are not into spreading pollution. We are only into ship breaking,” says Dewan Rizwan Farooqui, chairman of the Pakistan Ship Breaker’s Association, who adds that the ships arriving at Gadani have to have a certificate saying that they are free of oil and gas from the port they were last at.
A few workers aboard immediately cut out windows from inside the vessel to allow light inside the hull.
Among the countries involved in ship breaking, Pakistan stands second only to China. It is doing far better than India, Bangladesh and Turkey. Gadani breaks some 100 ships, be they oil tankers, cargo vessels or luxury cruise liners, having spent some 20 to 25 years in service after which it is more feasible to break it down than repair it. Everything from a little nail to big metal sheets and girdles, can be sold. Thus a 20,000-tonne ship is brought down in around 90 days.
Ship breaking in Gadani began in 1973. The ship breaking industry saw its peak during the late 1980s and early 1990s in the absence of competitors such as India and Bangladesh. Today China, too, known better for building ships earlier, is breaking them. They have also made plenty of dry docks for the purpose. Meanwhile, Gadani is also more suitable for the purpose than Karachi, where the breaking was done earlier due to its sandy beaches and the water level which is deep near the beaches making it easier for the ships to float as close by as possible. In comparison the beaches in India and Bangladesh are wet and muddy.
Still the business in Pakistan experienced a nosedive between 2002 and 2007 when the international market prices were just too high. It was only in 2008 that the international costs turned around and things started looking up again.
Speaking for all the ship breakers in the country, the chairman of their association says that they pay around five billion in taxes every year but are not even provided clean drinking water, electricity or good phone service.
The steel from a ship is solid and does not readily rust after it has been sent to factories in Karachi to be re-rolled. Earlier, there were more re-rolling and melting factories in Karachi but now with the breaking down only in Gadani, more of these are coming up in Quetta and Hub besides many more in Punjab as well.
The Pakistan Steel Mill and other foundries, meanwhile, serve as their competitors as they import ore for steel which takes up a major chunk of the country’s foreign exchange.