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Remote corner of India becomes a marketplace for global junk

ALANG, India—Archaeologists exploring the rural coast of western India a millennium or two from now might be baffled by what they find.

Plastic Christmas-tree stands from Texas. A Pepsi vending machine that accepts only American money. Hundreds of studio-quality photos of couples, old and young, dressed up for dinner or down for the beach.

In an offbeat testament to globalization, this remote corner of India has become a marketplace for junk from around the world.

The junk comes off the aging oil tankers, cruise ships and other vessels that are scrapped on the beach at Alang, the world's largest ship-breaking yard. Controversy dogs the industry; activists say lax safety standards put workers' lives at risk.

The ships disgorge nearly everything imaginable. Life preservers. Engines. Mini-refrigerators. Mattresses. Pool and gym lockers. Toilet paper and roach killer in bulk. Even the proverbial kitchen sink.

Nitin Modi, 46, and his younger brother Ajay run one of 500 open-air scrap yards that have sprung up on what was once a quiet road leading to the beach.

A month ago, they picked up a large metal ice and water dispenser from a ferry. "This kitchenware is valuable," Ajay Modi said. "It's not available in India." A label indicates its heritage: a Scotsman Ice Systems factory in Fairfax, S.C.

Three plastic Christmas-tree stands, made by Cinco Plastics in Houston, go for roughly $4.30 apiece. The artificial trees, when available, bring $17 to $22 each.

The ship breakers sell the contents of entire rooms to the scrap dealers, so the latter must take whatever comes.

That explains the heap of worthless cardboard luggage tags from the Regent Star cruise ship. And the piles of glossy portraits from a 2000 cruise aboard the Enchanted Isle.

After 23 years in the business, the Modis' world has come full circle. A cruise ship started operating out of Mumbai last year, targeting India's growing middle class. The junk dealers already are making plans.

"We have seen many cruise ships at Alang," Ajay Modi said. "Now, we would like to go on a cruise."

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(Moritsugu is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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