Dumping live ammo

Ghaziabad blast is the tip of a hazardous import iceberg

By Vikas Parashar
Published: Sunday 31 October 2004

-- a can of worms has been opened by the explosion that rocked the premises of Bhushan Steel and Strips, Sahibabad, in Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad district. Ten people were killed and 15 others got wounded in the incident on September 30, 2004. The blast occurred while one of the 11 trucks that had brought 'metal scrap' from the Inland Container Depot (icd) at Tughlakabad, New Delhi, was being offloaded. Artillery shells were found in this consignment, imported from Iran. This incident, and others that followed it, raise serious questions about the competence of departments concerned in checking the import of hazardous waste.

A K Jyotishi, additional commissioner (customs), icd, Tughlakabad, revealed that the consignment was loaded from a lot of six containers with 106.5 tonnes of metal scrap that had reached the icd on September 19, 2004. Bhushan Steel had imported the scrap through Lucky Metals, a supplier in Dubai, and it had come from Bandar Abbas port in Iran through Mundra port in Gujarat. But doubts are now being raised about the origin of the consignment as a police officer has reported seeing the stamp of Iraq on one of the shells. Sahab Singh, commissioner (customs), icd, Tughlakabad, says: "As per the document given by the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, the consignment was released by Iran. The shells might have been smuggled to Iran from Iraq." "At icd, an inspector and a superintendent checked the consignment and gave the 'out of charge' certificate for it," Jyotishi says.

A few days later, about a dozen anti-aircraft shells, some live, were found on Khurja-Aligarh Road in the neighbouring Bulandshahr district. A truck carrying the shells had apparently offloaded them on seeing policemen clearing the traffic. But details of the truck are not known. Jyotishi provides a clue: "Thirty trucks of Bhushan Steel carrying metal scrap were released from icd September 27, 2004, onwards. Of them, nine have been seized at Okhla in Delhi, eight delivered the consignments, 11 are in Ghaziabad, and two are yet to be intercepted."

The question being asked is how the consignment got cleared by the customs. icd officials say they conduct extensive checks on containers only if there is a tip-off from intelligence agencies. Otherwise, they just check the seal of containers, which go through checks at various points before reaching them (see chart: Ineffective checks). The icd comes under the Container Corporation of India Limited, a public sector undertaking. "We release 80 containers from icd daily and there are only two officials to check them manually. Ideally we should have mobile, computerised scanners and scanners for warheads, but in reality, we don't even have basic equipment like hand-held cameras," complains Singh.
The 'hazardous' debate According to the Hazardous Wastes (Management and Handling) Amendment Rules of 2003, scrap metal is hazardous. The rule says: "...hazardous waste means any waste which by reason of any of its physical, chemical, reactive toxic, flammable, explosive or corrosive characteristics causes danger..." The Basel Convention on transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal also lists scrap metal as hazardous. Though the import of such waste is not banned in India, prior permission is needed from respective state pollution control boards and the Union ministry of environment and forest (moef). Bhushan Steel did not have this permission. It didn't need it. N H Hosabettu, director, hazardous substances management division, moef, says metal scrap is not hazardous. "If explosives are found in the consignment, it's a matter for the Union home ministry." The Central Pollution Control Board's (cpcb) says determining whether or not metal scrap is hazardous is unnecessary, as the matter is 'beyond' this debate. "It's a matter of national security," says cpcb additional director R S Mahawar.

A 2002 report of a Supreme Court committee, formed to take stock of hazardous goods, clearly said that hazardous waste is imported in India as 'normal' import (see table: Masked danger). But what can port and customs authorities do without required technology and staff? Only the moef and the cpcb can answer.

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