Char Kaliganj and Char Mirerbagh have this surreal chaos about it. Along the Keraniganj bank of River Buriganga, one can hear the sounds of hammers banging, metals clanking and clattering all day long. If for some reason, say for power supply cut, the noise stops, this place becomes ghostly, the steel-made vessels dry docked on the site look abandoned.
At this dockyard, most of the metal bodies are discoloured, rusty or partially coloured with red, blue, yellow and white. At regular intervals, arc welding in the towering structures flushes.
These are the cargo and passenger ships either for repairing or being newly built. The dockyard populace has kept the commercial zone vibrant for this 57 year-old industry in Dhaka.
According to Masud Hossain, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Dockyard and Shipyard Owners Association (BDSOA), at the 27 dockyards in the area about 80 new ships are built annually, while 400 to 500 ships are repaired.
More than Tk five billion is earned from the activity which engages over 70 thousand people in at least 15 types of jobs, Masud Hossain told The Business Standard.
The sector, however, lacks modern facilities like crane service. Workers lift heavy iron sheets, gas cylinder and other heavy equipment manually.
A risky job
Building or rebuilding a ship takes breaking a sweat. This is a risky job as well. Despite health hazards, Mohammad Sharif, 26, a fitter, wants to carry on with his career in this field as it has a job assurance.
To greet him, I extended my hand. Though a little bit shy, he responded. I felt his calloused palm and fingers. The medium height dockyard worker was wearing a full-sleeve polyester shirt and a pair of jeans pants. His outfit had smudges of rust and dust.
"Since the last 12 years, I have been working in dockyard. With informal training that I had received from my mentors, I can do necessary repairing of a ship now," the fitter said.
Sharif got promoted to the post of a fitter from helper six years back when he was paid Tk 300 daily. "Now I get Tk 700. I drink milk every night. I can eat 10-12 meals with meat a month."
Sharif got married four years back. On August 10 this year, his wife gave birth to a girl. But how much time can he spend with his family?
"There is no holiday in a dockyard. We work till our health approves it," Sharif said. As his lunch break started at 1:00pm, he rushed to his home. The one-hour lunch break would allow him to see his little daughter.
Every day from 7:00am, workers start their daily job and carry on till 6:00pm. Besides lunch break, the workers get a 15-minute tea break at 11:00am.
Saddam, 16, a painter, has been working in the dockyard for last three years. He informs that the employers provide a butter bun and one piece of banana for each worker during the tea break. The workers have to bear the price of a cup of tea, like their lunch and dinner.
Job availability in the dockyards attracted Saddam to engage in his current job that help him earn Tk 400 daily. The boy from Shariatpur had left his school when he was at sixth grade. "I will earn more someday," the young painter wished.
Saddam's dedication may help him realise his wish.
But the work is hazardous, and he is less bothered about that.
Occupational injury is common in the dockyards. Sometimes the workers succumb to their injuries. "A few months ago, one fitter was electrocuted while welding in a ship," said assistant fitter Wasim. But why don't they wear gloves and goggles? Wasim said those are discomforting.
Relocation is difficult
Almost all the dockyards have winch machines that row ships on slip-ways. Sometimes, the ships need replacement of iron sheets at keel, shell and deck or to fix gear, shafts, propeller and rudder. Sometimes, the engine needs repair works.
Fitters use blowtorch and handy cutter to split open rusty or damaged iron parts, and then use welding machines to add new sheets and create new angles. There are electrical workers who manage power supply. The painters coat the ships with layers of red, yellow, blue and white colours, one after one.
BDSOA's general secretary Masud said, docking ships in every two years is necessary for longevity. "It costs Tk 25 lakh. The overall repairing cost varies."
The Keraniganj dockyards build ships with capacity ranging from 700 tonnes to 3000 tonnes.
Masud said, "Order for 1500-tonne ship is quite regular in Keraniganj. Building of such ships cost Tk 50 million minimum."
According to him, building or repairing ship is cheaper in Keraniganj than the other dockyard zones.
"Every kind of facilities necessary for the sector is available here," said Syedur Rahman Mohan, BDSOA organiser and owner of Doleshwar Marine Engineering.
He said that dockyard business in Keraniganj engages a lot of people in different types of enterprises including supply of gas cylinder, welding machines, imported spare parts, scraps, iron palate and angle, wood and engineering workshop.
The BDSOA officials claim that every scrap materials are reused in the dockyards.
Citing a shipping ministry circular issued in June this year, Mohan said that the government had asked the owners to relocate their dockyards within a year as those were polluting the River Buriganga.
"We can make the industry environment-friendly if there is government support. This is an established business and relocation of the dockyard certainly will affect the sector and the people dependent on it," they concluded.