When the immigration officer in Mumbai asked me and my cameraman where we were going in India, we told him that we were going to Alang. “Where?” he spluttered. “Can you spell it?” 

“A-L-A-N-G,” I said. The interrogation continued; “What do they do there?” he asked. Well,  that’s the interesting part.

When it comes to scrapping ships and cheap steel, Alang is the centre of the universe – nowhere else comes close. The 130-odd ship breakers who populate the town’s beach are well on track to beat last year’s total of 415 vessels – and these chopped-up bits of ship provide India with nearly 10 per cent of its steel supply.

There is a famous name on the beach at the moment – the Exxon Valdez – the 200,000 tonne oil tanker that spilt its cargo in Alaska waters in 1989, causing the worst environmental disaster in US history until the BP oil platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that we were keen to take a look at the Exxon Valdez – renamed the Oriental Nicety a few years back. The problem is, photography and “videography” are prohibited by the local maritime board and foreign nationals who happen to be journalists are effectively banned as well.

However, with the assistance of some local contacts and a little bit of luck – there were a couple of lorries parked in front of a police check-point when we arrived – we were able to slip our way into this extraordinary place.

It’s the ships that draw the eye with their giant funnels and their multi-story “bridges” looming over town. It seemed unnatural somehow, these masters of the sea now floundering on the shore.

Nothing in this place looks “normal” – trucks ply the main street, loaded up with oversize parts, pistons here, generators there. We saw a truck piled up with orange lifeboats heading for the exit. The 25,000-plus workers who do the hard labour live in tumbledown shacks and wash in a ditch on the side of the road.

You can see more of our pictures when we broadcast our report in a few days’ time – and we have been able to talk to individual ship breakers, government officials, environmentalists and other individuals, gaining some insight into to how this town really works.

For the most part, the people who run the place form a closed group with complex bonds and hidden tensions. But a terrible incident on 7 October at the Kiran shipbreaking yard has brought existing tensions bubbling to the surface.

Hundreds of labourers were busy dismantling the Union Brave, a tanker formerly owned by a Wembley-based company of the same name. One group had gone into the pump room to tear out the pipes and machinery. This part of the vessel is considered the most dangerous: it circulates fuel used for propulsion and cooling and various other power requirements on a ship.

Around midday on the 7th, there was a terrible explosion and fire which incinerated the bodies of five men. Another died in hospital several days later (although workers in Alang alleged the death toll is far higher).

The police say that someone was “hot-cutting” in the pump room – using a blow torch to cut the pipes. The practice is forbidden on safety grounds and the police charged the two owners and a  manager at Kiran shipyard with culpable homicide – or murder – something that has never happened here before.

This caused outrage amongst the owners of the ship breaking community, who say the charge is disproportionate and mutter darkly about devious practices,  about bribes and commissions unpaid.

They held a 10-day “Dharna” in the nearest city of Bhavnagar – roughly translated, that means a  sitting protest and strike. It was called off when local politicians promised to intervene on their behalf. One ship breaker told me the situation had now been “sorted out”.

Still, senior police officers in Gujarat state accuse the ship breakers of lying and trying to “divert attention away from the accident”. One officer told me that they had followed the advice of “three government agencies and the state’s forensics department when pressing charges”. He told me they had “concrete proof” of “hot-cutting in the pump room”.

The case has passed into the hands of India’s judiciary who, no doubt, will try to get to the bottom of it all. But I wonder whether it is the system itself that should go on trial. Several people in Alang told us that “the rules are flexible”.

Another official said: “Little would get done if we followed them 100 per cent,”  and it is the unpredictability of such an environment that endangers the lives of workers, that threatens the bottom line of the ship breakers and the integrity of those who seek to regulate as well.

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