Nazrul Islam has gone back to his village in Dhunat, Bogra, after receiving treatment at the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital for three months.
But he still has to fully recover from the burn injuries he suffered to his left arm, back, lower back and a leg while working at a ship-scrapping yard of Rahim Steel in Sitakunda, Chittagong. He still cannot raise his left arm properly.
He said, "Doctors told me that I would not be able to work for the next two years."
Twenty-eight-year-old Nazrul earned Tk 135 (less than two dollars) for working 8 hours a day at the yard. He is just one of many who have been crippled in ship-breaking yard accidents.
However, he considers himself to be lucky. In the last 16 months at least 24 workers were killed in accidents, mostly due to explosions and coming in contact with toxic materials in ships, while 17 others were maimed in 14 accidents in 14 shipyards.
All these accidents happened as the government is yet to comply with the directives of the Supreme Court. It lets the yards operate without providing the workers with safety measures.
On March 5, 2009, the Supreme Court also directed the government not to allow import of any ships with toxic substances inside. However, the Ministry of Environment and Forest is in favour of importing ships that has "inbuilt" toxic substances.
According to the Basel Convention, old ships are themselves treated as hazardous waste due to their inbuilt toxic substances. Cleaning ships made with toxic materials, including asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, chromates, mercury, organic liquids (benzene etc), battery, is hard and involves huge cost.
Being a signatory of the Basel Convention, Bangladesh is supposed to ratify it fully. The Supreme Court also directed the government on March 5, 2009, "We are inclined to follow the Basel Convention."
The Supreme Court said, "…the import of any further vessel, being hazardous waste or contaminating hazardous materials, which has not been decontaminated at source, must be prohibited for the purpose of import into Bangladesh."
Official sources said instead of taking measures to stop import of such ships, now the government is formulating a guideline, bypassing the court's directives, which will ultimately allow ship-scrapping yards to import unclean ships.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest also did not bother to ensure any safety measures for the workers in the yards.
"The shipyard owners did not clean the ship before scrapping. So it exploded while I was cutting a pipe," said Nazrul.
The court also directed the government that all yards must have clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest but at least 32 new yards have been set up since the court ruling. The new 32 have been set up clearing mangrove forest. No shipyard has the clearance.
However, following the directions of the court, the Ministry of Commerce, which decides what to import and not, prohibited the import of ships with toxic substances inside under the Import Policy Order 2009-12.
Interestingly, the ministry of environment requested the commerce ministry to amend the policy and to include provision for importing ships that has "inbuilt" toxic substances.
"We don't want to shut down the ship breaking yards," Hasan Mahmud, state minister for environment and forest, told The Daily Star justifying their activities immediately after the amendment five months ago.
"There was no guideline about how to operate the ship breaking yards. We are going to formulate a guideline under which we will give them environment clearance certificates," said the state minister who is from Chittagong.
The Daily Star failed to reach him yesterday.
Recently the government has formed a committee to make a "Guideline for ship breaking and managing hazardous materials, 2010". In the guideline, the committee drafted a form for the ship breakers where they would mention what toxic substances are coming with a certain ship, which is meant to be scrapped. It does not ask the ship breakers how they are going to deal with the toxic substances.
"The government is supposed to follow the Supreme Court's directives. But it is violating the direction almost in every step," said Syed Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association, which filed the petition that resulted in the court order.
So far 111 ship-breaking yards have applied for the environment clearance certificates, including the 32 new yards, since the Supreme Court delivered its directives.
The Ministry of Environment and Forest will consider their approval after the draft guideline is formulated, sources in the ministry said.
Since the court order, one worker has died in each of these shipyards: KRP Trading/Mabia Enterprise, Jamuna Shipyard, Lucky Shipyard, S Trading, Habib Steel, Rising Steel Ltd, Sultana Shipyard, SS Enterprise and FN Ship Yard.
Two workers died in Kabir Steel Yard, three at Crystal Ship Yard, three at Pakiza Ship Yard, seven at Rahim Steel.
Bangladeshi shipyards scrap nearly 100 ships a year on the Sitakunda beach.
A report of a survey conducted by two internationally reputed organisations, Greenpeace and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), on "The Human Cost of Breaking Ships" published last December simultaneously from Bangladesh, India and Switzerland says at least 1,000 workers died in the last 20 years in Bangladesh's ship-breaking yards.
The figures do not include the deaths from diseases caused by toxic fumes and materials workers are exposed to all the time.