Friday, January 13, 2006

Will the Clemenceau Come to Alang

“What do you do when a 27,000 ton ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ heads towards a vulnerable target?” asks this Greenpeace article. This provocative question refers to the decommissioned French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which set sail recently from French shores, headed towards the world’s largest ship-breaking yard in Alang, Gujarat, India. In Greenpeace’s eyes the simple question above has an equally simple answer: stop the ship from reaching India.

According to Greenpeace, the primary reason that the ship should be stopped from reaching India is that it carries up to 500 tons of hazardous asbestos. The French government officially claims that much of the asbestos has already been removed and only about 45 tons of asbestos still remains on board. This French government document also states that the Indian companies selected for dismantling the Clemenceau are competent (have received international certification) and some of their technical people have even been given suitable training in France.

I think that Greenpeace and others who are opposed to the Clemenceau coming to Alang have the best of intentions and have done a commendable job in highlighting the problems and the hazardous nature of the ship-breaking industry. However I believe that they are guilty of over-simplifying the issue. In a world of harsh realities, things are not always as black-and-white as they appear on the surface.

There is a fundamental assumption made by Greenpeace that if the workers in Alang are not exposed to hazardous materials from the Clemenceau, they will not be exposed to any other hazards whatsoever. Ideally everybody should be able to work in a completely safe and comfortable environment, but obviously that’s not the reality in India today. It is quite possible that if the Clemenceau is not allowed to come to Alang numerous workers will have to take other jobs that are no less hazardous and may well be lower paying. According to William Langwiesche, who has written an excellent story on Alang, the workers there are “… migrants from the distant states of Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. They toiled under shipyard supervisors, typically from their home states or villages, who dispensed the jobs, generally in return for a cut from the workers' already meager pay. The workers chose to work nonetheless, because the alternatives were worse.” And here’s what Dilip D’Souza has to say. “Even though the Greenpeace report is concerned with worker safety and health, Pritam [a foreman from Bihar] and the workers didn't speak of it with any fondness. Partly because of Greenpeace efforts, Alang is losing business steadily -- remember, just 35 occupied plots out of over 160. Jobs here are drying up and workers are returning to their states. ….. Yes, the conditions in Alang leave me appalled. Yet there's a small army working hard here, earning their wages hard. Yes, measly wages -- what's two dollars a day ? Yet that's more than the workers can hope for at home, and this industry is the bedrock of an entire region's economy. …. Some very old Indian dilemmas here.”

Clearly the demand for stopping the Clemenceau is not something that has originated from the workers on the ground in Alang. Nor does it appear that this demand is strongly supported by them.

Considering that it is not easy for unskilled workers in India to get steady jobs and they often have whole families in distant villages to support, will Greenpeace help those workers who lose jobs or are forced to work for lower wages ? If Greenpeace is so concerned about the safety of workers in Alang why does it not use its worldwide resources to procure hazardous material handling gear such as protective suits, masks, etc., and train Alang workers in the use of such equipment. That would be the ideal solution. Workers would avoid exposure to hazardous material while at the same time retaining their source of livelihood.

It is right to be concerned about workers in Alang being exposed to dangerous asbestos from the Clemenceau, but why is Greenpeace not concerned about other workers in India who are regularly exposed to asbestos from other sources. As this excellent article in the Indian Express points out, India imports nearly 150,000 tons of asbestos annually. Why does Greenpeace not protest against this trade with as much vehemence and energy as it does on the Clemenceau issue ?

In India there are millions of people who are engaged in hazardous and back-breaking work – in many cases much worse than the workers at Alang. Consider for example people who work in stone quarries breaking stones and who commonly suffer from silicosis, or in brick-kilns, or as manual scavengers. Why is Greenpeace not concerned about these other workers as much as it is about Alang workers ? Workers in Alang at least have a semblance of an organized safety infrastructure.

I am not arguing that we should not worry about working conditions in Alang just because there are other people in India whose working conditions are much worse. Of course we should be concerned, and Greenpeace and other organizations deserve credit for bringing these issues to the world’s attention. But we should not put so much pressure as to significantly reduce employment opportunities in the ship-breaking industry – at least as long as it remains difficult to get alternative employment elsewhere. We need to balance the need to prevent hazardous material from coming to Alang with the need to grow – or at least maintain – employment opportunities that the ship-breaking yard provides. What right do we (or Greenpeace) have to decide for a worker what is a suitable trade-off between a regular job and the hazard of possible asbestos exposure ?

It seems to me that in the minds of Greenpeace and its supporters the workers in Alang are so ignorant and/or so stupid that they don't have the basic ability (and therefore should not have the right) to decide for themselves what risks to take in their pursuit of better livelihoods. I don't think that what ultimately happens to the workers in Alang is a major concern for Greenpeace. For them the Clemenceau incident is simply something they can use to generate publicity and prove a point in a larger Europe-centered political and philosophical debate. If Greenpeace is actually concerned about workers in ship-breaking yards in India, it should be more practical and should keep harsh realties in mind, even if it sometimes means compromising on matters of principle.

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future the rapidly growing Indian economy will generate so many better and safer jobs that the ship-breaking industry will have to improve working conditions significantly in order to attract workers, or will just die a natural death.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Reflections on an India Trip

A few weeks back I returned from a long India trip. I spent most of my time in Pune and Chennai, and a few days in other cities. This trip also included working for a while at my company’s development center in Pune. Here are some reflections on this trip.

There is a great sense of optimism and also a certain sense of confidence among people belonging to the educated urban middle and upper middle classes, especially among the young. It is wonderful – and very exciting – to see the Indian economy grow so rapidly and so many new opportunities open up for young people. There is an unmistakable sense of vibrancy and excitement, signs of which are visible all around – at least in the larger cities. I could see it clearly in my office in Pune. Our Pune development center has grown rapidly over the last 4 - 5 years and now has about 700 people. In our California office on the other hand about 70% - 80% of the development team has been laid off over the last 4 years.

Unfortunately it appears to me that this wave of prosperity has bypassed the poor. The yawning gap between the rich and the poor does not seem to be getting any narrower. The lack of concern that many among the upwardly mobile appear to display for those less fortunate seems shocking. Impoverished kids begging at traffic intersections are as common as ever. And otherwise decent human beings sitting in their cars don’t seem to have a problem dismissing them as “lazy, unwilling to work for a living”. In Chennai I once handed over a Rs.10 note to a little beggar girl, having run out of coins. A heart rendering scene ensued. Possibly being unaccustomed to getting notes rather than coins, three/four beggars converged on the poor girl and the biggest (strongest) one made off with the money. All this happened just outside an elegant Raymond’s clothing store. Incidents such as these make me think that the inequality gap in India may actually be widening. However a more dispassionate consideration indicates that this may not necessarily be the case. After all a very wide gap – accompanied by extreme bigotry and a demeaning attitude towards castes/classes considered lower than one’s own – has been a hallmark of Indian society for centuries. For instance, in Pune under the Peshwa rulers, untouchables were not allowed within the city gates between around 3pm and 9am lest their long shadows during dawn and dusk pollute upper-caste inhabitants. A strong sense of social superiority/inferiority is nothing new in India. There is some statistical as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting that the poverty situation in India – though very bad – is indeed getting better. There are also many signs that we Indians do care about our fellow citizens much more than we did in the past – witness the bourgeoning of NGOs, and the vast amounts of money and effort put into tsunami relief activities. On the whole I am left with ambivalent thoughts on this topic. Appalling inequality is visible everywhere, although outright bigotry is clearly much less than what is known to have existed in the past. Data also exists showing a steady fall in poverty levels. But is the current rate of poverty decline the best that can be achieved ? And even if the poverty rate is indeed declining reasonably speedily, is the inequality gap growing ?

Being a part of Asha for Education I got a chance to visit a couple of projects. One was Doorstep School. I visited about five schools that they run at construction sites and slum areas in Pune. It was truly a learning experience. It is inspiring to see so many of these kids in their ramshackle makeshift classrooms with bright smiles on their faces and bursting with energy. The dedication of the teachers, especially Mrs. Paranjpe who heads the organization in Pune, is very impressive. It was very interesting talking to Mrs. Paranjpe. She said that many years ago when she decided to plunge into social work she believed that she – and others like her – would be able to bring about real change. But now she has lost hope of that happening in the foreseeable future. She does believe that her work has value but thinks that real change will come about only a generation or two down the road – not in her lifetime. I guess that for people on the outside – like me – it is very easy to be optimistic, but for people who have invested a large part of their lives in social work and who had once set out brimming with idealism, social change appears to be excruciatingly slow. Here is a site-visit report I wrote based on my visit to Doorstep School, Pune. I also visited a school that is trying to get some Asha funding. It is a residential school in Wagholi near Pune for kids belonging mainly to Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs and NTs). I was completely unaware of DNTs before visiting this school. They are among the most backward and neglected people in India. I found the story of the Denotified Tribes (Vimukta Jatis) shocking. In 1871 the British Raj passed the first of many Criminal Tribes Acts, which allowed entire tribes to be “notified” as criminal. The consequences which followed such a designation can easily be imagined. In 1952 the progressive government of independent India repealed the Criminal Tribes Acts, thereby “de-notifying” these tribes. However in a decidedly non-progressive step the government enacted a series of Habitual Offenders Acts, which renewed many of the provisions of the Criminal Tribes Acts, and which were eventually abolished only in the 90s. Even though they are severely oppressed, many DNTs are still not classified as Scheduled Castes or Tribes (SC/ST) in many states and so do not enjoy some of the resulting protections such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. For more on DNTs see here, here or here.

I had a wonderful visit to the Red Fort while in Delhi for a short while. While all forts, like say the Agra fort are very interesting for their intrinsic historical value, what is unique about the Red Fort is the immense political symbolism that it continues to retain to this day. It was of course the center of Mughal power from the 17th century onward. It also played a vital role in the anti-British uprising of 1857 and its harsh suppression. This chapter of fort’s history can be seen in the form of British built barracks inside its walls and in the signs that the Indian Army has left of its continuous presence there till 2003. Since 1947 as we all know, on Independence Day the Prime Minister of India unfurls the national flag and addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort. In Pakistan certain elements – including some in the Pakistan Army – talk even today of hoisting the flag of Islam on the Red Fort.

Two thing that I found very amusing was the passion generated by Saurav Ganguly’s exclusion/inclusion in the Indian cricket team, and the fascination with Sania Mirza. News about Saurav and Sania are all over the media. I actually saw a media report about where Saurav’s wife had gone shopping. Sania – with her recent success and with fatwas hanging over her – certainly makes for interesting and inspiring news. But her fans should remember that she is only a 19 year old girl. She should be allowed to grow, both as a player and as a person, perhaps making some mistakes (and learning from them) along the way.

I really enjoyed traveling through Pune Airport. This airport is also home to an Indian Air Force base. From the passenger terminal one can see the magnificent Su-30 MKIs of No. 20 Squadron and the Jaguars of No. 6 Squadron taking off and landing. Passengers are required to walk a short distance on the tarmac to board their aircraft, and if one is lucky enough while walking down the tarmac, one can see (and hear) a Su-30 MKI barreling down the runway for takeoff just a short distance away. Surely one of the most beautiful sights in the world, if you ask me. Here's a picture of a couple of Su-30 MKIs over Pune.