Ship Breaking in Chittagong

I left Dhaka through the most crowded train station I have ever seen in my life.  The platforms were full (obviously), the trains were all full (obviously), and the roofs of the trains were also full (maybe not quite as obvious).  I’ve seen people on the roofs of vehicles in cramped countries before, but never like this.  I have no idea how there weren’t people falling off as the train went around corners or wobbled on the sometimes uneven tracks.  It was a bit disturbing hearing continuous footprints and movement through the ceiling of my train car; and watching groups of people slide down the side of the train at stations, leaving greasy streaks on my window with their bare feet.  My 6-hour journey finished as promptly as I could expect: 12 hours later.

Prior to coming to Bangladesh, the only sight I was aware of in the whole country (if you can call it a ‘sight’) was the ship breaking yards in Chittagong.  I had seen this hellish place featured in a documentary, and wanted very much to see it for myself.  Basically, this is the place where giant ships get destroyed for salvaged materials once it is determined that the cost of maintaining the vessel isn’t feasible compared to replacing it with a newer ship.  Bangladesh is one of the few places where this kind of work is undertaken because you can pay the workers next to nothing, there is no regulation for environmental controls (oops, this one still had a little oil left in there), and you don’t need to be bogged down by safety protocols – if someone dies or gets injured there are plenty more people in this country in need of work.

And it raises a whole bunch of debatable issues that I’m not smart enough to see a clear side.  Obviously the environmental and safety issues associated with this work is inexcusable, but these ships provide the only source of steel for this incredibly poor country with crumbling infrastructure; workers wages are relatively low, but much higher than the average wage in a country plagued by poverty; and really, the only other alternative to dispose of these beasts is sinking them at the bottom of the ocean.   That’s not really the best either.  Debate aside, getting a peek at barefoot workers up to their knees in mud dismantling these behemoths was interesting to say the least.

Considering the size of the ship yards it’s surprising how difficult it is to see any of this work take place.  After getting some bad press in recent years, the security around the yards has increased substantially.  I was quickly turned away at the main entrance to a yard, but after slogging around the perimeter fence and only making a few security guards angry, I was able to see a few ships in a neighboring yard from a fair distance.  I guess they are pretty hard to hide.  Wanting to get a bit closer, I headed to a port town just north of the main yards the following day.  After some extended negotiations, I found myself aboard a former lifeboat that had been retrofitted with an engine and propeller (this entire region is full of equipment ‘repurposed’ from salvage ship materials) and headed towards the shipyards, this time from the water.  Take that, security guards!

The ships are enormous, especially when beached on the mud flats, and it’s somehow incredibly creepy how they dwarf the workers like little ants.  I’m not sure exactly why, but every time I think of the scale of those dismantled ships I get the same queasy feeling as when I think about swimming in the dark, in deep, deep water.  I do not want one of those things to touch my feet.