Monday, May 02, 2005

Vex-illology

In my bedroom window, as a curtain, hangs a flag.

It is green red blue, all primary colours, with what looks like an olive branch in the middle of it all.

I saw the flag in December 2003 and fell in love. I had to buy it. The man who was selling flags, by the kilo, didn't know which country it was. You don't have to when you're selling flags by weight.

In Alang they sell everything by weight. Or almost everything. Where we bought the flags from they were also selling gas masks, industrial washing machines, old VHS tapes, sofa sets and clocks. Earlier, in the morning, at another shop, we'd met a doctor from Jammu who was here to scrounge around for surgical instruments.

They break ships in Alang. 'Break' doesn't quite cover it. That implies an end. The death of the ship. But that's not what happens in Alang. Every part of every ship that comes in to Alang is instead given a new life, endlessly cycling and recycling in the world. A ship is carefully taken apart and away in three months max - the steel plates of its hull, its lifeboats, its furniture, its TV sets, its wallpaper, its cutlery, its life preservers, its surgical instruments, its lights - and then sold. The debris of ship breaking spreads in an organised sprawl radiating outwards from the breaking yards by the sea, all the way to the edge of the highway, six kilometres away.

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 actually a connection between terrorism and piracy. One could argue that this goes back to groups like the Dutch Sea Beggars, but to choose modern organisations only, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the Somali National Movement, and the Somali Salvation Democratic Front have all been accused of piracy within the last twenty-odd years. (The NPFL are perhaps the only people still flying what could be termed a pirate flag: their vessels apparently sport the banner of the organisation, which is red, with a black scorpion on it.)

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.

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