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Blame game kicks off

mumbai Updated: Jul 15, 2010 03:19 IST
Manish Pachouly

It is yet another incident that could have been avoided. And once again, a fierce battle between various government agencies to put blame on each other has already begun. Chlorine facts

The chlorine leak incident on Wednesday morning at the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) land in Sewri, affecting 94 people, was the result of government agencies not adhering to safety measures while handling hazardous materials.

Even as the MbPT and customs authorities blame each other for the mishap, it has come to light that the Controller of Explosives under the Union Petroleum Ministry has been just as negligent.

The consignment of over 100 imported chlorine cylinders has been lying unclaimed on the MbPT land since 2001.

The Port authorities said they could not dispose of the cylinders without clearance from the customs and the Controller of Explosives. The customs authorities said the port did not have to wait for their response.

What's more, a letter written by the MbPT for the permission to get rid of the cylinders has been gathering dust at the Controller of Explosives offices in Nagpur since April 2008. Rahul Asthana, MbPT chairman, confirmed to HT that he did not get a response from the controller even after more than two years.

Asthana also blames the customs authorities. He said, "It falls in the customs' jurisdiction as the chlorine importer did not collect the cylinders. We need their clearance to dispose of the consignment."

But the customs authorities disagree. "Customs reacts to letters if it has any objection to the disposal of a consignment. Otherwise, we don't react. That means we don't have any objection," Shobha Chary, chief commissioner of customs (Zone 1), said. "The port trust has to dispose of the unclaimed cargo."

Explaining the procedure that is followed in such cases, a customs official, requesting anonymity, said if nobody claims an imported consignment for 30 days, the MbPT (custodian of the warehouse) becomes the guardian or importer of the consignment by default.

In such circumstances, he said, "the MbPT auctions the consignment. The auction process ideally should be complete in a year." After the auction, the MbPT pays the customs duty out of the money received from the auction and keeps the remaining amount.