Last Saturday, a ship from Russia docked at the Vizag port and delivered a cargo of 25,000 tons of ammonium nitrate. Three more ships are still lolling at sea, waiting to berth. Their cargo? Some 67,000 tons of the same substance.
Ammonium nitrate is used in the making of fertiliser. It’s also used in the making of explosives, mainly by mining companies and quarries. It’s also used by terrorists to make improvised explosive devices. less than half a kg of it is sufficient to make a bomb that can create mayhem.
So where does the shipment go after the stevedores have unloaded it? Given the lack of secure storate space, the deadly material is despatched to warehouses in the industrial area of Mindi in Vizag.
Mindi is home to major industries like the HPCLVisakha refinery, Hindustan Zinc Limited, and Bharat Heavy Plates and Vessels (BHPV).
Residential areas like VUDA Colony, Janata Colony, Labour Colony and the employees’ quarters of BHPV and Hindustan Zinc lie within a radius of 2 km.
Storing vast quantities of ammonium nitrate in the heart of Mindi puts the lives of lakhs of people at risk. Vizag citizen activists say that officials are, shockingly, turning a blind eye to this even as shipping agents violate norms relating to the handling of the deadly shipments. Import of the ammonium nitrate has been increasing at the Vizag port.
IDL, Special Blast Pvt Ltd, Project Equipment and Consultancy Ltd and Solar Explosives Ltd import it mainly from the former Soviet countries and Sravan Shipping Private Ltd is the shipping agent for the cargo.
The Visakhapatnam Port Trust (VPT) allows these imports but storage in bulk within the port premises is not allowed. This followed new norms brought in by the Union government after the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.
Importers are therefore required to handle the substance in small quantities and only in bagged form. While issuing the stringent norms, the government allowed a one-year timeframe to develop storage facilities and safety precautions ports.
Presently, only one sole agent is unloading the chemical in bulk at the Vizag port and shifting it to godowns in Mindi, 20 km away.
As per storage rules, no more than 3 tons of ammonium nitrate can be stored in any port facility in India, maintaining a minimum distance of 8 m from the compound wall. Outside of the ports, a maximum of 5000 tons is permitted per godown. But at Mindi, storage exceeds that limit.
Forum for A Better Visakha convener E A S Sarma, a former Union energy secretary, says numerous complaints about the import, storage and sale of ammonium nitrate have been submitted to the National Security Adviser (NSA), the Union home minister, Union home secretary, the state’s DGP and other top officials.
Sarma says handling, storage and transportation of ammonium nitrate ought to be checked at all corners but no such protocol is followed in the port city.
“I did try to highlight in New Delhi the illegal storage and unsafe transport of ammonium nitrate in Visakhapatnam, but the issue still needs to be taken up at the top level,” Sarma said. Of particular concern, citizen activists say, there are transit losses of ammonium nitrate from the VPT to Mindi.
A lot of the substance comes loose while being unloaded and this is by an large unaccounted, they say.