The “hissing” gas-torches that cut open the mightiest of ships have gone silent at the Alang ship-breaking yard in Gujarat.
With the supply of industrial oxygen, that fed the gas torches, being diverted for fighting Covid-19, all ship-breaking activity has come to a grinding halt since the last couple of days. The effects of the diversion of oxygen for medical emergency due to the pandemic is also being felt by several smaller manufacturing units and processes due to the unavailability of oxygen as well as other industrial gases like argon.
At Alang, for cutting small and big portions of a ship, an oxygen fuel torch is used. A variety of fuels such as propane, butane or natural gas are used along with liquefied or compressed oxygen to cut into the ship’s body. The liquefied oxygen acts as an oxidizer, while the fuel helps in cutting iron and steel parts easily.
“Not a single tonne of gas is coming to Alang. Everything has been diverted for medical use for the last couple of days. Ship-breaking at almost all the plots has stopped completely,” Haresh Parmar, a shipbreaker at Alang and honorary joint secretary, Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA) told The Indian Express.
Alang consumes 70-100 tonne of oxygen on a daily basis and most of it is sourced from Shree Ram Group in Bhavnagar, Reliance Industries in Jamnagar and Inox in Ahmedabad and Vadodara.
Shipbreakers at Alang said that only a handful of shipbreakers who have a couple of tonnes in reserve are currently operating
“We will be clocking huge losses because of this shutdown at Alang. However, we feel this oxygen is needed in the hospitals. Our association feels that the oxygen should be given where it is most needed now. Business considerations cannot be bigger than saving lives,” Parmar added.
Alang has been seeing a huge influx of old ships due to the present conditions in the global economy. Due to Covid-19, a number of luxury liners have also recently come to Alang for breaking.
“All our oxygen supply is going for medical use. The district collector has taken charge of our oxygen supply. Almost 90 per cent of the shipbreaking at Alang have stopped. Those left with a couple of tonnes of oxygen will stop work in the next couple of days,” said Mukesh Patel, chairman of Shree Ram Group, the biggest supplier of industrial oxygen to Alang. Shree Ram Group is also a shipbreaker at Alang and has an oxygen production facility in Bhavnagar.
Sanjay Singh, secretary of Alang Sosiya Ship Recycling and General Workers Association — a body that works for the welfare of workers at Alang — said that the working hours at most of the shipbreaking plots have been reduced due to lack of oxygen supply. “We are yet to see the impact on the workers,” Singh added.
In other parts of the state, workshops and shopfloors of leading industries have also slowed down their projects while the smaller manufacturers are hoping that the situation will be better in the coming days.
Hemal Dave, owner of Shivani Enterprises, which manufactures pharma equipment from Makarpura GIDC in Vadodara, says, “We have not been able to procure Argon for the last two weeks because oxygen manufacturers have used all argon bottles for filling Oxygen. The bottles used for Argon and Oxygen are the same… The production has of course come down to less than half… How can we sustain with paying wages with less than half work happening, this time?”
Even those factories producing industrial oxygen have closed their units temporarily as the raw material for producing oxygen has been diverted for medical use.
President of Federation of Gujarat Industries (FGI) Abhishek Gangwal, CEO of HPS Gases Ltd., which is into manufacturing of industrial gases in Vadodara, said, “There is a definite decline in the manufacturing processes that use industrial gases in combination with oxygen or standalone oxygen because all industrial oxygen has been diverted for medical use. My own plant manufacturing oxygen has been closed for about ten days now.”
Gangwal points out that being the industrial belt of the country, states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka are seen as manufacturing hubs, especially for automobiles, which needs a lot of fabrication work.
“While we understand the need for diversion of the oxygen for medical purposes, there are two important points that one must consider: the big manufacturers of steel and other metal processes who have their in-house oxygen plants must show restrain during this time by working on a lower capacity to share oxygen with the other industries… The second point is that patients using oxygen must be made to realise its value.”
“A lot of oxygen being used up by hospitals is on account of wastage because someone getting it does not realise its value and leaves the valves open,” Gangwal adds.