Monday, October 08, 2007

No trace of tonnes of stolen explosives

Monday October 8 2007 02:01 IST

NAGPUR/NEW DELHI: Every time there is a terrorist or a Naxalite attack anywhere in the country, alarm bells ring in the fifth floor office of the Chief Controller of Explosives in Nagpur’s lush Seminary Hill neighbourhood.

For long, these bells have gone largely unheard but so loud is their ringing now that the entire security establishment is beginning to wake up: the colossal theft and diversion of explosives from the over 21000 licensed explosive manufacturers across the country.

Official records accessed by this website's newspaper show that in just two years, 2004-2006, for which data collection is complete, the scale of theft is staggering: 86,899 detonators, 20,150 kg of slurry explosives, 52,740 metres of detonating fuse and 419 kg of gelatin sticks. Not just this, huge quantities of explosive cartridges and boosters have been stolen from magazines (stores for explosives) and explosive vans.

Theft on such a scale, officials say, is an ominous foreshadow of what could lie ahead: for, not only is there no record of what has landed in whose hands, once a terror attack or a Naxalite strike takes place, even the trail of such material is virtually impossible to track. Add to this the rising concern over ammonium nitrate, a chemical freely sold in the country but mixed with fuel oil and sulphur used for lethal strikes with devastating effect.

Ammonium nitrate was mixed with RDX and used in the Varanasi blasts in March 2006 that killed over 20 people; it was also used in the Mumbai rush-hour train blasts last year; in Malegaon, too, ammonium nitrate was used in a cocktail of RDX and fuel oil. In the twin blasts in Hyderabad on August 25 this year, Neogel 90, an ammonium nitrate-based explosive, was mixed with steel pellets.

It was as early as April 13 that an alert sent by Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta had, in fact, acknowledged the problem. “Some of the issues that concern us fall in the areas of manufacture, supply, transport and storage of explosives in the Naxalite-affected areas,” the order said. “Serious concern has also been voiced about the free diversion of substances like potassium chlorate and ammonium nitrate, which used in conjunction with sulphur and fuel oil acquire explosive proportions.”

“When RDX was used, it was easier to decode the fingerprints on the attack,” says a senior intelligence official who is investigating the Hyderabad attack, “but when explosives like these, the ones commonly available and stolen, are used, our job gets incredibly difficult.”

These explosive heists have been reported by Deputy Chief Controllers located in Kolkata, Rourkela, Vadodara, Bhopal and Vellore. What is more shocking is the fact that all these offices have sent in identical comments that add up to nothing: “No reply received from police authorities regarding retrieval."

Only in one case in the last two years, after 51,000 m of detonating fuse were stolen from an explosive manufacturer in Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, were the police able to recover 14,250 m, barely a third of the loot.

“This is the major impediment we face,” Chief Controller of Explosives M Anbuthan told Express. “Even after major thefts from licensed magazines, some located in terrorist and Naxalite-affected belts, we never hear from the state police. The result of the investigation must be shared with the licensing authority but we have been left completely in the dark.”

Anbuthan, who heads the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, says the other problem is shortage of staff, the reason why just about a fourth of the manufacturing units could be inspected last year.

So serious is the issue now that a series of high-level meetings have been held in New Delhi attended by the top brass of the internal security and intelligence establishment. First on the agenda: control and regulation of ammonium nitrate.

Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta confirmed to Express that a committee headed by Intelligence Bureau official D.P. Sinha is looking into setting up of a mechanism to regulate the sale and storage of explosives, especially ammonium nitrate. Even amendments in the 1983 Explosives Act are on the anvil related to keeping digital records and mandating inspections. It’s not going to be easy.

“Given the diversity of usage of ammonium nitrate from the fertilizer, quarrying and coal sector, it is impossible to ban its sale. The challenge is to stop leakage and step up enforcement keeping in mind the limitation to the extent of regulation and monitoring you can have. As far as pilferage and theft is concerned, state police agencies have to be sensitised on the issue and the Chief Controller’s office given better manpower and infrastructure.”

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