There is a lot said about the hazards of working in Alang, about the toxic waste, about dumping. Almost nobody tells you how serenely, surreally beautiful it is.
Trapped in the cage of the skeleton ship
All the workmen suspended like flies
Caught in the glare of acetylene light
A working man works till the industry dies
We rode into Alang in a three wheeler auto full of workers getting to the ship breaking yards. The sun was coming up. They were carrying lunchboxes and wearing protective boots. One of them had a burn scar across his face. The signs on the walls advised precaution and protection - helmets, boots, gloves, and condoms. Alang is a lonely place. A migrant town, workers from UP and Bihar coming for the higher wage that the risk and the skill brings them; buying the highest number of Philips transistor radios in Gujarat, to listen to Hindi film songs on All India Radio. FM doesn't play in Alang.
We passed the docks with their hulks of ships. Some just towed in and blocking the sun, some half dismantled, some just skeletons of girders floating, silhouetted by the sunlit sea.. Our one camera had been taken a long time ago. We reached a pebbly beach, with a stream flowing through, and ships being deconstructed on either side. Ahead the sea. Behind, across the road from the ship breaking yards, endless onion fields. Yellow hats bobbing on the ships in the distance, the occasional flash of an acetylene flame, a girder cut loose, swinging from a crane, a man balanced atop it.
… The flag must have come from a ship like this, flying the colours of an unknown country as it came to be beached in Alang. Someone had written 'Ethiopia' on the back, on the narrow white synthetic strip with the eyeholes where it was hoisted from. But Ethiopia it wasn't, unless they'd changed flags pretty recently.
Questions unanswered, and flag packed, we continued our holiday, and I returned to Delhi, with the flag's nationality not being the only uncertain thing in my life.
So the flag remained, packed away, until finally it came up in my bedroom window about a month ago. And I took some time to search and found the flag on the net. Paradoxically, or maybe not, labelling it Ethiopia made geographic sense, but historically speaking, was probably a really bad idea. For the flag was of Eritrea.
I read on the net - the colonization by the Italians. The British takeover and usual fuck up. The liberation struggle. The ethnic strife. The resurgence of war, which finally only ended last year. The history of a ten year old country hit by war and drought and despotic rulership… and getting by?
Why would any ship fly an Eritrean flag?
There is also a connection, then, between 'piracy' and shipping registry', at least in the case of Liberia -
The UN's investigating panel based its findings on a trail of payments made by the Virginia-based Liberia International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR). LISCR registers foreign vessels to fly a Liberian flag of convenience. It is the second-largest registry in the world, with 1,724 vessels registered under the Liberian flag. Thirty-five percent of all oil tankers fly a Liberian flag, as well as numerous cruise ships and other cargo vessels. Registration gains ship owners cheaper taxes and fees as well as less restrictive maritime regulations.
Liberia, in turn, earns millions from the use of its flag. LISCR last year channeled $18m to Liberia's government - a quarter of the West African nation's revenues.
Would it make similar sense for Eritrea, right there on the Red Sea Coast, to make money by registering ships under tis flags, when so much else is/was going wrong?
The world is a great and terrible place, as Kim's Lama said, but meanwhile the flag of Eritrea flies proud in a window in Jangpura. And leaves me without any sensible way to conclude this post, except being tempted to sing, 'The answer my friend is blowing in the wind…' and being deservedly boo-ed for that.