Explosive theft: Everyone admits problem, no work on solution
(Indian Express) If the scale of theft and diversion of explosives across the country is staggering, as reported by The Sunday Express today, what is equally startling is the mountain of correspondence between different government agencies on the subject and yet the lack of any significant action.
Official records obtained by The Indian Express show that advisory after advisory was issued by the Chief Controller of Explosives underlining how high the stakes were, many of these were even echoed at the highest level at the Centre.
In fact, North Block was aware of how serious the situation is as early as July 2006 with the then Cabinet Secretary B K Chaturvedi writing a confidential letter to the Union Home Secretary, informing him about intelligence inputs received from the Ministry of Defence. In it, instructions were issued to set up a high-level committee on diversion of licensed explosives that would even monitor manufacturing to prevent “misuse.”
The Cabinet Secretary’s note mentioned two alarming instances of explosive diversion: an Indian vessel apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy was laden with 61,000 detonators that had markings of a Gulf oil company but had originated from an explosive manufacturer in Hyderabad. The second instance involved theft of a huge quantity of commercial explosives off the Mumbai coast while being transported for a Border Roads Organization (BRO) project in Afghanistan.
Following these inputs, a committee headed by Home Ministry’s Additional Secretary R S Sirohi was set up — arguably the first official admission of widespread diversion of licensed explosives.
The warning couldn’t have been more clear: “There has been a recurrence of incidents in which explosives are getting diverted from the manufacturing factories for unauthorised usage within India and getting lost en route, indicating that there is a review of the entire procedure of issue of licenses and also monitoring of firms dealing with explosives.”
Minutes of the ensuing meetings reveal that the Home Ministry first asked the MoD’s Ordnance Factory Board to provide the Chief Controller of Explosives with a flow-chart of methods of safety/transportation/inspection of explosive stores. However, once this was received, the Government rejected this as too cumbersome. It also asked the Intelligence Bureau to provide a blueprint for security mechanisms for checking antecedents of explosive manufacturers, transporters and end-users who were often blasters in mines and quarries.
Inundated by all this correspondence in Nagpur, Chief Controller of Explosives M Anbunathan sent a 14-point list of suggestions on augmenting systems and again outlined the absence of any response from state police and district authorities following pilferage or theft of explosives.
The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation — the umbrella organisation which the Chief Controller heads — in a report to the Centre admitted that “instances have come to notice when commercial explosives were clandestinely diverted to separatist groups in some places… the leakage of explosives may take place with the connivance of licensed magazine (explosive stores) owners or during transportation apparently for monetary gains.”
Once North Block raised an alarm about diversion of ammonium nitrate along with pilfered commercial explosives to subversive groups, PESO was further galvanised into action.
In April, around the same time Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta wrote his advisory on “free diversion” of explosives and ammonium nitrate, Anbunathan sent a note to all explosive manufacturers informing them that the chemical constituted approximately 70% of all slurry and emulsion explosives and that “given the background of misuse of the ammonium nitrate by terrorists/anti-social elements, it has become imperative to monitor its manufacture, movement and use.”
So the Chief Controller asked for daily computerised records of purchase and use of ammonium nitrate and said that a high-powered team (read Intelligence Bureau) would visit manufacturing units for inspection.
Another letter was written by the Chief Controller to all state Chief Secretaries in July 2006 in which Anbunathan admitted, “pilferage of explosives from licensed magazines has been causing great concern especially in the wake of reports that these pilfered explosives sometimes land in the hands of anti-national and terrorist elements as well as Naxalites.”
He also informed the Chief Secretaries that in several cases, mines and quarries do not hold licenses in their names but entrusted the quarrying/mining activity to blasting contractors. “Thus the quarry owner is nowhere responsible and accountable for transaction of explosives… the present scenario of the country in the wake of bomb blasts and Naxal activity warrants close monitoring of movements and use of explosives,” he warned.
On the ground, PESO’s inspection reports revealed other disturbing trends. Some inspections showed (for instance, in Asansol and East Jharia) an easy swap of licensed magazines was being done from one manufacturer to another, resulting in several licenses being cancelled.
In one case in Chandigarh, two senior officials in the office of the Deputy Chief Controller were trapped while accepting a bribe from a manufacturer. In all, the PESO cancelled as many as 829 licences last year (2005-2006)though not all for security-related reasons.
The PESO informed the Government that “due to limited manpower” it was not possible to check monthly returns of the approximately 22,000 explosive manufacturers, but that they were proposing to commence an online check of all intra-state and inter-state transportation of explosives for which a pilot project was already operational in Mumbai.
However, this proposal didn’t find favour in New Delhi. Home Secretary Gupta cautioned that a nationwide online audit did not seem feasible at this stage. “We have to step up enforcement to control diversion of explosives which has become a very serious concern,” he asserted. “And we have to ensure that all cases of explosive theft and pilferage end up in prosecution.”
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