About 900,000 kg of ammonium nitrate explosives, enough to reduce a city like Gurgaon to rubble, has been illegally diverted or stolen in less than two years between March 2010 and January 2012, according to government of India records.
A two-month-long investigation by HT showed that a large part of these explosives find their way to illegal miners, who are wreaking havoc on the environment, and to Maoist rebels, who use them in landmines, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of paramilitary personnel and civilians.
Experts said the actual figure was probably a lot higher and that this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Lax and, in many cases, non-existent monitoring is leading to this huge diversion of explosives. The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), the monitoring agency for explosives under the department of industrial planning and production in the ministry of commerce, has only 200 officers to monitor 250,000 explosives makers spread across India.
“PESO is highly understaffed to carry out the statutory responsibilities entrusted under the various rules. With the existing manpower, less than 15% inspections could be carried out, though 100% inspections are required,” PESO’s annual report for 2011-12, the latest available, says.
But Atul Chaturvedi, joint secretary, DIPP, cites a commerce ministry study conducted 10-15 years ago to point out that PESO is, in fact, overstaffed. “Thus, several posts were abolished. However, we are trying to now revive those abolished posts,” he said, adding that the department is trying to develop a tracking and tracing system which would reduce theft and leakages.
Meanwhile, these diverted explosives continue to claim lives. “The easy availability of commercial explosives is one of the major factors behind the success of Maoist attacks on the police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF),” said Rajeev Kumar, DG, Jharkhand Police.
“It is relatively easy to make landmines from ammonium nitrate-based explosives. Maoists plant them in jungles, roads and bridges and trigger them when our forces pass by,” explained MV Rao, IG, CRPF.
Lax monitoring allows many licensed manufacturers to supply explosives to people without valid licences to buy them, a letter written by PESO to explosive manufacturers in August 2010 said.
But most often, the explosives are stolen. When HT visited Eastern Coalfields’ explosive depot in Hadiajam near the Jharkhand-West Bengal border, we found a lone, unarmed woman guard keeping watch over a magazine (storage space for explosives) with 10,000 kg of explosives and 44,000 detonators. The wall around the depot was broken on one side and entry posed no problem and no one raised any alarm.
Ganesh Dhar, a local, said Maoists could loot the place anytime.
The situation was no different in the Lakshmimata magazine in Giddi in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district. Coal India Ltd’s magazine there was manned by a lone man on guard holding a lathi!
The matter has been brought to the notice of coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal but no action has been taken.