Plight of Gadani ship-breakers highlighted

KARACHI, Dec 1: It is a rarity that a film on the lives of the labourers who scrap ships is made, that too in a country whose film industry is almost nonexistent. This fact made the screening of a documentary, Iron Slaves , produced and directed by Khalid Hasan, at the IEP auditorium on Wednesday an interesting experience. The screening was sponsored by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

The film starts with a few slides giving facts about the ship-breaking industry, one of which suggests it`s the lowest paid job in Gadani. Some long shots of the Gadani beach and the yard are shown and then a series of interviews begin, aided by narration through voiceover. The interviews, intercut with voiceover and occasional shots of the labourers working on the beach, show a young boy (Shah Alam), a man who has spent four decades lifting, scraping and breaking iron (Allah Bachayo), a young kid Qaiser, a man from Azad Kashmir, one from southern Punjab and a few others telling about the lives that they lead as ship-breakers.Some of the stories told by Allah Bachayo and Shah Alam are heart-wrenching.

Through these interviews it becomes known that the labourers live in subhuman conditions with no medical or recreational facilities. The entire area has only one medical dispensary run not by a doctor but by a compounder-type person Liaquat, who basically provides first-aid to those who come to him either after receiving an injury or feeling sick. The seriously injured or sick are taken to hospitals in cities for which transportation is hard to find. Ambulances are unavailable. There`s no water to take a bath, leave alone to drink. Sometimes the labourers use seawater to clean them up.

Another sad point that was unanimously discussed by the poor workers was that they haven`t had their salaries for six months.

Allah Bachayo`s tales are particularly poignant. He knows the names of the deserted vessels for scrap — Canberra, Lady Diana ka jahaz, etc. He once injured himself and was taken to the Jinnah hospital and had 10 stitches to cover up the injury. He didn`t even have time to visit the hospital again and get the stitches removed. Shah Alam, however, appears to be the focus of the director`s attention, for he begins and ends the film with his story. He is an impulsive lad who wants his due. At the end he leaves the yard (or beach) for Karachi without getting his pay.

While the intent behind Iron Slaves was praiseworthy, the documentary noticeably lacked research work that must go into such ventures.

Information on the ship-breaking industry, all over the world, on how the one at Gadani took root, on how the labourers are hired and on who the people responsible for their plight are would have made it strong content-wise. It hinged only on the interviews with the labourers that in a manner of speaking gave a lopsided view. Those who have deprived them of facilities at least should have been shown to have been approached even if they denied talking about it.

Then it also did not pictorially explore the yard or the area. There were a couple of interesting shots in the film when some workers are seen pushing a heavy piece of iron. Expanding on such scenes would have enhanced it aesthetically.

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