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The Rediff Special/Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi
October 26, 2004
Of late, we have been hearing of rockets, missiles and shells (empty and live) being found abandoned in drains, ponds, even dustbins.
In a country where such material is generally found in the possession of the army or terrorists, its sudden appearance in public places has evoked fear and concern.
The danger was first exposed on September 30 when 10 people died in an explosion at the Bhushan Steel Company in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Nine workers died on the spot, while one succumbed to injuries in a hospital.
It turned out that the scrap contained live rockets and missiles, which exploded while being offloaded.
Since then, around 2,000 items, including 1,000 cartridges, have been found in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Of these, 700 were live rockets and missiles.
The count is still on.
On October 12, the Union home ministry ordered the police across the country to comb big, small and medium iron and steel companies and manufacturing units that use imported iron scrap.
Manufacturers were asked to inform the police and hand over all scrap for inspection.
Shaken by the deaths and discoveries, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil chaired a meeting to discuss the issue.
Later, Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal announced that the abandoned explosives were not linked to terrorism or sabotage. He blamed the police and customs personnel for the material entering India. The Intelligence Bureau was asked to probe how the material got past customs officials.
The developments scared companies in possession of such scrap. Some companies started dumping the scrap fearing police action.
rediff.com has learnt that rockets and missiles are imported as Heavy Metal Scrap from war-ravaged Iraq and some Central Asian countries. They are shipped from ports in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Somalia and Ethiopia and recycled into low-cost iron and steel sheets and finished goods such as utensils.
Though India has been importing scrap from around the world for a long time, its dangers came to the fore on September 30 in the Ghaziabad accident.
Bhushan Steel Company bought the scrap from Dubai-based Lucky Metals, which had sourced the scrap from Iraq.
The consignment was shipped to India from the Bandar Abbas port in Iran. It landed in Mundra port in Gujarat and was forwarded to the customs department's Inland Container Depot in Delhi.
The US-led attack on Iraq brought down several bridges and buildings. The destroyed structures produced millions of tonnes of metal scrap. The used and unused, live and partially live rockets, missiles and ammunition shells are another source of scrap.
Scrap dealers sell this dangerous cargo across the world without defusing the explosives.
India, a huge market for scrap, imports a large amount of scrap, unwittingly making its citizens vulnerable to dangerous accidents.
According to the finance ministry, India imports between 10,000 and 12,000 metric tonnes of iron scrap every day at a cost of between $250 and $275 per metric ton.
The explosion at the Bhushan Steel Company was the first such incident reported anywhere in the world.
Ghaziabad Superintendent of Police J N Singh told rediff.com, "The workers at the factory dealt with it like any other heap of scrap. The intensity of the explosions would have been higher if the scrap had been put in the furnace for melting."
Two company managers have been arrested for possession of explosives banned in India.
The explosive material was found in just one of the seven trucks cleared by the customs for the Bhushan Steel Company. The Inland Container Depot examines all consignments before handing it over to the importer.
In this case, the scrap was examined by the ICD in Tughlaqabad, south Delhi.
Two customs inspectors have been suspended for carelessness and negligence.
After the Ghaziabad accident, intelligence officials and police went on a combing operation in the area searching manufacturing units and homes for more live explosives.
This apparently created panic. Factory owners started dumping scrap to evade the police. Since then, rusted and corroded rockets, missiles and shells -- some of them live -- have been found abandoned in at least seven states.
While state police units collect and isolate the explosives found in imported scrap, army and National Security Guard explosive experts neutralise them.
Fortunately, no other explosion has been reported so far.
All consignments of scrap lying at 100 Inland Container Depots across India have now been withheld.
Every consignment of scrap is being checked thoroughly.
In Tughlaqabad alone, about 2,000 containers are awaiting verification.
Additional Commissioner of Customs Sharad Srivastava told rediff.com, "The government is likely to announce new and stricter norms for checking of loose scrap. We are waiting for the fresh directives."
"We will not release any consignment till the new norms are announced," he added. "Moreover, we want it to be checked in the presence of policemen."
For the time being, the finance ministry has issued a notification that loose scrap will henceforth be imported to India only through 12 major ports, which have better scanning facilities.
As for the Ghaziabad case, the government has blacklisted the supplier Lucky Metals and cancelled the license of Delhi-based customs agent KMS Limited through which Bhushan Steel Company got its consignment.
Bhushan Steel Company, in turn, has filed a suit demanding Rs 1 crore from Lucky Metals claiming to have purchased only scrap and not explosives. The supplier had issued a certificate that the scrap was fit for factory use and hence, the company says, the onus of the explosion lies on the supplier.
"We were not aware of any dangerous material being mixed in the scrap. We have been buying scrap for long and no such incident ever occurred earlier," a company manager said.
Work at the Bhushan Steel Company has resumed but Ghaziabad residents continue to live in fear.
Tomorrow: How did these consignments land in India?