The use of ammonium nitrate in the recent Pune blast signifies yet again India’s vulnerabilities in the Chemical-Biological-Radiological (CBR) security domain. Trafficking and trading of chemicals such as ammonium nitrate, which are used in explosives, have become common among terrorist groups and criminal gangs.
Amending India’s Explosives Act is long overdue. The law must take into account the changing circumstances and the more challenging ways in which state and non-state actors are aiding and abetting terrorism. One of the major shortcomings of the act is its sole focus on the safety of these materials in terms of managing the handling and storage. The security of such materials is often overlooked.
India’s small- and medium-scale industries have continued to argue that any theft of chemicals is done only for pecuniary reasons, which would mean that the security of these materials – the material falling into the wrong hands – is often overlooked. Pilferage is often rubbished as stolen material for commercial purposes; simply put, to earn some extra money. But they do pose serious security threats to India’s internal security, as was evident in the Pune blast. India has now witnessed several recent incidents of such security breaches, including the July 2011 Mumbai attacks.
In an effort to arrest criminal use and to control the easy and unrestricted availability of the chemical, the government in 2011 categorized ammonium nitrate as an “explosive.” However, the catch was that ammonium nitrate is in large-scale use in the agricultural sector and therefore, the government loosened the regulation to say that “its possession and use would invoke penal action only if the composition had 45% or more ammonium nitrate content.” Terrorists and criminal groups have been able to exploit this loophole effectively, which has allowed them to repeatedly use it in major and minor terrorist incidents in India.
Recently, a committee set up by the central government to look into the distribution and handling of explosives suggested that the Home Ministry may be better suited to regulate the flow and trading of these chemicals instead of the Department of Industries, Policy and Planning, as is the case currently. However, the Home Ministry’s already much too overstretched to be assigned additional tasks. Regardless, one agency must be invested with the sole responsibility to lead on this issue.
A separate internal security ministry with a department focused on CBR security with adequate manpower is truly needed. With India’s expansive and expanding network of educational institutions and associated labs as well as private industrial units, the use of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals is likely to grow manifold.
Consequentially, India should be monitoring and addressing the weaknesses in the current approach of controlling the material technical know-how of the product. The need for an integrated approach cannot be overstated.
India’s ancient rules are another set of issues that need urgent attention. The Explosives Act of 1884, which was last amended in 2002 need to be overhauled again in the face of new challenges.
A recent study by ORF and RUSI on the subject, India & Non-State Actors: Chemical, Biological & Radiological Threats, which was largely based on primary research, highlighted some of these loopholes while also suggesting ways to remedy some of the gaps.
While the central government-appointed committee is looking into some of these recommendations, it appears to be focusing a great deal on coordination between different departments handling these chemicals. This is by no means unimportant; indeed, as noted above, a whole-of-government approach is needed to properly address the threat. Nonetheless, a host of other issues also require greater attention.
For example, transportation remains a significant weakness. Additionally, industry rarely considers the dangers of these materials from falling into the hands of terrorists, criminals, and third parties who may sell the materials to terrorist groups.
The huge variation between the large, medium and small-scale industries in their approach to security of these dangerous materials is significant. The government has to devise innovative measures to control and streamline the production and distribution of such materials. The wide-scale disparity in the training and security provisions and the lack of standardization of private security agencies puts India at serious risk. An accreditation and audit mechanism, with periodic security audits and a reporting structure for audit findings to be signed off by a designated regulator, should become standard practice in industries. Industries also have to be alert to insider threats that go undetected by and large because of inadequate background threats.
A related issue is the lack of threat communication and training at the grassroots level among ordinary security agencies. While senior-level officers may be aware of CBR threats, the forces that form most of the front-line security layers are not adequately aware of the dangerous materials they deal with. In cases where they are alert, moreover, they are not adequately equipped with in-house security forces and certainly cannot afford to pay for a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) contingent. Also small, profit-driven units are not as concerned about the security of these materials. Addressing this effectively could be done by encouraging greater resource-pooling among smaller units to employ good security outfits as a way to reduce costs while strengthening the impact of security spending.
Lastly, India’s mindset about having precedents before strengthening measures needs to undergo change. We have to become sensitive to threats as they evolve rather than wait for incidents to happen and react thereafter.
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. She served in the National Security Council Secretariat, Government of India, from 2003 to 2007.