A small Hindu temple topped by a dirty orange pennant stands outside the gate to Plot 18. The temple is shaded by a neem tree, with two bells salvaged from ships hanging from a branch. It is one small reminder of a world, a life, that exists beyond the yards.
The men live in shacks they have built out of lumber harvested from the ships. The shacks are packed on the dunes behind the beach, separated by muddy alleys. Four or eight or 12 men might live in one shack. There is no furniture, no light, no water.
Sriram Prasad, 32, with dark hair brushed forward and a bushy mustache, counts himself among the lucky men of Alang. He lives in an 8-foot-square shack with three others. They sleep on a table. The walls are covered with newspapers; little triangles of colored paper hang from the ceiling. He has a wife and two sons back home. A brother and many of his neighbors work here. He gets the shack for free.
He says he has worked here 10 years. "It's hazardous -- we're always scared of getting hurt. I get bruised all the time, but I've been lucky and never seriously hurt.
"But I've seen so many people die. I've seen 100 people die before my eyes. It is just a matter of destiny."
This attitude infects seemingly everyone in Alang. Destiny brings men who otherwise could not support themselves to this fiery corner of India. Destiny wears them out and fills them with malaria. Destiny deprives them of decent sanitation. Destiny burns them and crushes them.
"The best thing is the money, which I wouldn't get anyplace else," says Prasad, "and the worst thing is not knowing how long you'll be alive."
A single, heaving rutted road runs parallel to the beach. In the morning light, cows amble along looking for scraps of food. The trucks come to life; soon they'll be jostling for room and, later, the owners' Japanese four-wheel- drives will come blaring and darting among them.
The workday begins, no different from the day before or the day after.
A cutter takes a torch to an engine room pipe, and residual oil inside bursts into flame. Nearby, smoke rolls from a smothered fire, mixing with the acrid fumes of burning steel and paint. A little farther off, a ship's deckhouse is pushed off its perch and plunges 70 feet to the hold below, with a crash that sends a huge dust cloud swirling.
Pairs of workers carry oxygen canisters on their shoulders, cushioning the load with their all-purpose safas, traditional Indian scarves. Gangs of a dozen or more men, plastic sandals on their feet, chant in unison and hoist heavy plates of steel onto their shoulders. Others heft cutting supplies alongside the beached ships, wading through muddy sand saturated with oil, dust, sludge and human excrement.
The scrapyard owners look on from their porches, sipping sweet milky tea.
Walking to or from the yards, the men of Alang seem listless, worn out, beaten down. But they are diligent workers. At Plot 66, two men, facing each other, pull on the ends of a large hacksaw, like lumberjacks, cutting the copper pipes of a boiler. They've been at it since 3 p.m. the day before. They expect to finish toward sundown the next day.
Back and forth, in a patient trance, with an unvarying stroke, they pull at the saw.
"It's how we earn our bread," says Ram Sanwarey, 38.
The most sought-after ships are those that fly the American flag. Greek tankers and Russian trawlers are the bread and butter of the scrapyards here, but a shipbreaker knows that a U.S. merchant vessel was built with high-grade steel, was well-maintained, and will be clean of grease and sludge when it arrives.
It will be laden with asbestos and PCBs, but Indian shipbreakers do not worry about environmental damage or exposing their workers to hazardous substances. And, anyway, almost all the world's ships (except the newest) were built with asbestos and PCBs.
An American tanker called the Keystone Rhode Island arrived at Alang this year after three decades hauling oil. Owned by a shipping firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., the Rhode Island was sold through a New York broker to a middleman in Singapore, who sold it to a breaker here. It was one of several hundred ships that make their way to Alang every year through brokers in London and New York.
In 1996, the brokers sold 464 ships for scrap, with 289 coming to India and most of the rest to Pakistan or Bangladesh. There are no reliable figures on the number of warships and commercial vessels -- mostly Russian -- sold outside the established brokerage system.