After more than a million miles of plying the world's oceans, the Milagro, a 35,000-ton, Malta-registered bulk carrier, completed her final journey from the Persian Gulf on a recent afternoon and dropped anchor off this windswept point on India's northwest coast.
After waiting for the high tide that comes with a full moon, the ship's Greek captain, Marinos Galatoulas, raised anchor and nosed her inland, steering a zigzag course toward flapping red and yellow flags on the beach. Smoke pouring from her funnel, the vessel sailed the last few hundred yards full steam ahead until her rusted prow crested the shore and rose gently into the air.Few maps show Alang, a soulless spot on the coastline of Gujarat state 185 miles northwest of Bombay. But in recent years, what had once been a poverty-stricken village has become the world's biggest ship-breaking yard. In the 1990s, Alang has served as the graveyard for almost half the ships scrapped by the world's navies and merchant marines.
Alang's drawing card has been its natural conditions - heavy tides and a gently sloping beach that allow a ship simply to be run up into the sand - as well as the availability of limitless amounts of cheap labor for the dangerous, backbreaking job of cutting and hammering the ships into scrap.
Just as important, environmental and safety regulations that make shipbreaking prohibitively expensive in the United States and other major industrialized countries are rare here, and they are largely unenforced even when they exist.
But Alang's success has been accompanied by growing controversy, mainly in the United States, where environmentalists and human-rights activists have questioned the propriety of allowing organizations decommissioning ships for scrap, including the U.S. Navy, to sell the vessels to foreign shipbreakers who observe few if any of the regulatory standards that have virtually crippled shipbreaking in the United States.
In the past two years, congressional hearings have resulted in tightened scrutiny of the sale of U.S. ships to Alang and in tougher environmental standards that have discouraged the sale of many U.S. merchant ships. Stricter U.S. oversight has also halted, at least for now, Alang's purchase of U.S. Navy ships, which have been sold for scrap in large numbers since the end of the Cold War.