Bangladesh Industries Minister Dilip Barua said this week the government will formulate policy guidelines for an environment-friendly ship-sbreaking industry.
Ship-breaking industry of the country is now under the grip of a severe crisis following High Court ban on its operation that led to closure of some re-rolling and steel mills. The fate of investment worth Tk 55 billion already been made by different banks in this industry is also becoming risky.
Business leaders claimed that due to High Court ban on import and dismantling of scrap vessels, about 300 re-rolling mills and 50 steel mills were closed down over the last several months. A good number of non-government organisations (NGOs) are propagating against dismantling of scrap vessels in Bangladesh citing the cause of environment pollution. Rod and steel traders bitterly criticised their role saying that such NGOs were conspiring to destroy the country's prospective ship-breaking industry by raising some 'irrelevant' environmental issues. They claimed that the businessmen involved in the sector were counting financial loss worth around Tk 320 million daily due to such anti-industry activities by these NGOs.
The ship breakers of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have floated a tri-nation forum to fight against negative propaganda and 'conspiracy' hatched against the ship-breaking and recycling sector in the region by vested quarters. The new forum titled Federation of Ship Recyclers' Association was announced at a joint press conference attended by ship-breakers from three countries at a city hotel recently.
In fact all these developments are not a good sign for the country at all. Industries, including construction, re-rolling and steel supplies are highly dependent on ship-breaking as a large number of rod comes from this industry. But the ship-breakers are failing to break imported ships due to legal complications following High Court directives. Ship-breaking is a labour intensive sector. That's why the government recognised it as an industry. The condition of ship-breaking yards in Chittagong was reportedly improving. The industrialists claimed that they had changed the situation in the yards by keeping environmental issues in their minds.
It is true that many people have been opposing operations of the ship-breaking industry, considering environmental issues. But the government, as the industries minister declared, will help build up environment-friendly, sector-specific industry by taking lessons from those countries that successfully established such industries. The entrepreneurs should invest more to protect environment and ensure safety to the people involved in the sector.
Operators in the industry claimed that they supply about 2.3 million tonnes of scrap iron, 0.35 million tonnes of furniture, emergency generators to different factories, and motors and spares parts to different users, and pay about Tk 7.0 billion revenue to the public exchequer a year.
Meantime, the environmentalists called upon the government to permit ship breakers to import waste-free ships and follow the example of Chinese ship yards for the ship breaking industry. They also suggested the government to give permanent identity cards and training to labourers and declare separate wages for them. The government's decision to declare the ship-breaking as an industry is, no doubt, laudable. But the point here is that the authorities concerned need to be extremely cautious on the protection of nature and environment of the surrounding areas where the industry is located. All rules, regulations and conventions have to be properly maintained in conducting ship breaking activities under the new industry. The ship breaking yards need to be brought under a disciplined and well organised system.
It is expected that the decision of the government would open up new opportunity for a considerable number of people to get employment. Placing of ship breaking industry under the Ministry of Industries will also ensure discipline in its all-out activities while the surrounding inhabitants, local environment and the workers and employees will be immensely benefited through it. The government expects that the decision would also reduce the market price of the essential materials of the construction sector like rod, iron and steel.
Indeed, the ship breaking and recycling are expected to meet up internal needs of iron goods, help flourish ship building industry, boost employment generation, infrastructure development through booming of re-rolling mills, small, cottage and other allied industries. The ship breaking industry took off in Bangladesh a few decades back and has emerged as the second largest employment generating sector next to the RMG only. But the stalemate was negatively affecting this booming sector pushing at risk some 500 re-rolling mills, 50 private sector owned steel mills and thousands of small scale backward linkage industries.
It is true that ship-breaking helps the country's economy, yet at the same time, needless and callous endangering of the labourers' lives and pollution of the environment cannot be allowed. The industries minister recently asked the ship breakers to beach scrap ships after getting them fully free of gas and other hazards. He said ship breaking is a thriving sector which can be termed a 'gold mine' and that nobody should undermine its potentials.
Sitakundu in Chittagong is now the world's largest ship-breaking destination as Bangladeshi importers have beaten their competitors in India and Pakistan to buy the highest number of scrap vessels sold in the international market. The country's ship-breakers offer at least 20-25 per cent more price than their competitors in India and Pakistan, making the Bangladesh the preferred choice for the 'burial ground' of a large and medium sized ships. The country cuts ships that generate 12,000-20,000 tonnes of scarps per vessel, Indians and Pakistanis only target the small vessels that can generate on 4000-5000 tonnes per vessel.
There is no denying that ship breaking is a very profitable venture. The yard owners should, therefore, spend some additional money for workers safety, training and welfare under their own institutional care. And there is no need to scrap as much as one hundred poisonous ships per year. By an elimination process only the least hazardous ships should be allowed to enter the country. If such process is taken up, the number of workers will automatically come down. If yards are fewer the operation will go on through the year and regular workers will not face any temporary joblessness. Any way, a tough but an environment-friendly policy should be framed to give the ship breaking industry a better look. The campaign to protect the environment and lives of workers is certainty commendable. But it will also be irrational to ignore the economic value of an industry, only on consideration of some factors that are beyond its control.
There are allegations that not only the local NGOs, but also some international firms were conspiring to harm the prospective ship-breaking industry of Bangladesh. As ship breaking is becoming an emerging economically viable sector here, some European countries are out to destroy it. If the country prospers in ship-breaking, the Europeans will not be required to send scraps here any more.
The safety of the workers and pollution-free atmosphere are of utmost importance in the context of Bangladesh. Yet it is also important to keep the ship-breaking industry of Bangladesh alive. If such industry closes for any reason, it could cause the collapse of other industries that depend on it.