Sunday, October 31, 2004

India: Rocket Launchers and Shells in My Backyard



The scrap consignment was exported by a company named 'Lucky Metals SZE' of Dubai. The company is owned by a Pakistani Dilwar Hussain. There are credible reports that the munitions embedded in the scrap actually originated in Iraq. The $25000 consignment had sailed from the Bandar Abbas Port in Iran, and and reached the Indian port Mundra, in Gujrat. From, there, it landed at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) at Tughlaqabad, New Delhi, for clearance. From Tughlaqabad, seven trucks carried the cargo to Bhushan Steels at Shahibabad. The seventh truck was the 'killer truck'. The consignment had been cleared at every single stage of it's journey. Lucky Metals of UAE, the company shipping it declared that there were no 'bombs, shells, ammunition' in it. So did the authorities at Mundra port, and even those at ICD Tughlaqabad in New Delhi. That is, at none of the check points, be they be in India, or in Dubai or in Iran, a full-fledged physical verification was carried out, of the consignment. From one post to the other, the officials rubber-stamped the papers and cleared it. It's easy. Given the state of affairs, it appears that it is almost impossible to check everything physically.

Rocket Launchers and Shells in My Backyard
Sharbani Banerji

The events of the past few weeks have unearthed some frightening facts. "India is being unwittingly turned into a dumping ground for scrap containing explosives from war-ravaged countries" ( "Scrap ammo: The big dump", Hindustan Times (HT), 9th Oct 2004). What no one has pointed out till now is that these are in all probability, depleted uranium munitions, and pose far greater danger than 'explosives' pose. In Iraq, US has even dropped Mark 77 firebombs, which are similar to napalm bombs used in Vietnam. We don't know what their (inactive) shells would look like. Have they crept into the scrap? Everybody talks about "Nuclear Proliferation". What about this "Proliferation of Explosive and Radioactive Scraps" ? What are we going to do to stop it?

On Sept 30th, while a truck carrying scrap iron, which had sailed from Iran, was unloading the cargo in the compounds of a steel factory in Ghaziabad, a portable rocket launcher hidden inside the scrap exploded, thereby killing eight people on the spot, and also injuring eight others. Two more people died in the city hospital later. The unsuspecting workers had used a gas burner to cut the scrap, resulting in a huge explosion. This factory, Bhushan Steel and Strips Ltd., is located in Shahibabad, in District Ghaziabad, in Uttar Pradesh, India. It imports huge quantities of scrap iron from abroad, which are then melted and recast into iron rods. These rods, the most essential component in all kinds of buildings, bridges etc., are then sold in the market.

The rocket launcher wasn't the only ammunition hidden inside the scrap. As the police sprang into action, thereby arresting the GM and the additional GM of Bhushal Steels for causing death due to negligence, and the army and the National Security Guard (NSG) personnel took over, it was discovered that there were about 15 more 81mm mortars embedded in the heap of scrap metal. NSG diffused two of the shells inside the factory premises itself. Realizing that it was too risky, they took the rest to the Hindon river bed, where three more were diffused. They didn't realize that even this was too risky, especialy if these muntions contain depleted uranium, which in all probability they do, as we shall argue. This incident was only the tip of the iceberg.

The "killer truck" (as HT likes to call it), wasn't the only truck carrying cargo for Bhushan Steels. As more and more trucks started to arrive carrying scrap, the army isolated them and moved them to Kanha Upavan area, for further checking. From the 11 trucks which had been brought to Kanha Upavan, a protected forest area near the factory, 56 more rocket shells were found, some of which were live. And, without thinking twice, the NSG started to diffuse the bombs inside this ecological park !

The scrap consignment was exported by a company named 'Lucky Metals SZE' of Dubai. The company is owned by a Pakistani Dilwar Hussain. There are credible reports that the munitions embedded in the scrap actually originated in Iraq. The $25000 consignment had sailed from the Bandar Abbas Port in Iran, and and reached the Indian port Mundra, in Gujrat. From, there, it landed at the Inland Container Depot (ICD) at Tughlaqabad, New Delhi, for clearance. From Tughlaqabad, seven trucks carried the cargo to Bhushan Steels at Shahibabad. The seventh truck was the 'killer truck'. The consignment had been cleared at every single stage of it's journey. Lucky Metals of UAE, the company shipping it declared that there were no 'bombs, shells, ammunition' in it. So did the authorities at Mundra port, and even those at ICD Tughlaqabad in New Delhi. That is, at none of the check points, be they be in India, or in Dubai or in Iran, a full-fledged physical verification was carried out, of the consignment. From one post to the other, the officials rubber-stamped the papers and cleared it. It's easy. Given the state of affairs, it appears that it is almost impossible to check everything physically.

Thanks to the media, which was quick to highlight the incident, this time, the police did spring into action immediately. The state government ordered an enquiry into the incident. The district was on high alert and so was Delhi police. A country wide inspection of iron and steel units were ordered.

As we said, it was only the tip of the iceberg. Since that incident in the premises of Bhushan Steels, rockets, and shells, a great many of them live, have been found all over the country, from the strangest places, like road sides, fields, ponds, bushes, etc., and they continue to be found everyday.

In Ghaziabad alone, 42 more rockets have been found from different places. Eg., 10 rockets were recovered from behind Delhi Public school on Meerut Road Industrial area, 15 in a bush in a park in Bulandshahar Industrial area, 11 from Kavinagar industrial area, 6 from near Postal Staff College in Rajnagar. They have also been found in Delhi. Atleast 31 empty shells were found in Mayapuri area. 219 shells were found at Dhicchuan Nilwala Road in Najafgarh, out of which, 6 were suspected to be live. 18 'junk rockets' were found by a farmer in a field in Aligarh district, in Harduarganj. 12 Shells were found abandoned at Khurja-Aligarh Road in Bulandshahar.In Meerut four gunny bags containing spent rockets, used machine gun cartridges and other fire arms were found by the road side in Mawikalan village on Delhi-Baghpat road. 120 shells were recovered from Gujrat out of which 50 were found near Shinai village on Mundra road, 5 of them live; 36 were found in Mitiyana village, and 23 at Anjar.

In Siliguri in Darjeeling district, 6 rocket propelled granade shells were found from a riverbed. 72 rockets were recovered from Raipur. In Chattisgarh, about 62 shells have been found in a pond, amongst which about 46 were live. And it continues. Even yesterday, on Oct 26th, hundreds of shells of rocket-launchers, mortars and hand grenades were dug out from a site near Vehlena bypass on Muzaffarnagar-Meerut highway. A godown owner had bought some scrap from a Meerut resident. The consignment contained ammunition shells. Fearing police action, he buried them at that site. It appears that, that is what has happened in all the other cases too. The authorities suspect that the factories dealing in scraps are trying to dispose off the shells, in the wake of stepped up security. That explains why they have been detected in such weird locations. That also rules out a 'terror angle', which the media focussed on, initially. But what comes out is even more dangerous. The incident at Bhushan Steels was just one of the 'explosive situations' which actually exploded. Ammunition-filled scrap has been coming all along, atleast recently for sure. Many more such ammunition-filled consignments had reached the country before 30th Sept, and may be even after 30th Sept, easily dodging detection. They must have slipped from other ports too, as their geographical distribution indicates.

The mess does not end once the killer-shells have been detected. Only NSG has the expertise and infrastructure for disposal of these shells and rockets. But they too seem to be unprepared to deal with such a situation. The ammunitions have not been checked for radioactivity. If they contain depleted uranium, must they be diffused, which essentially means 'exploded'? Initially many shells were thus diffused in the Kanha-Upavan area, thereby causing immense harm to the environment, and may be also to the people who had been exposed to the dust, until protests from the residents of Karhera and nearby villages, from the environment group 'Paryavaran Sachetak Dal', from the officials of Pollution Control Board, from Shri Krishan Gaushala and others, forced them to change plans. Besides, the area is surrounded by the Gas Authority of India Pipe lines and is close to Hindon airbase. The bomb disposal squad then shifted the site for defusal of bombs and rockets from Kanha Upavan to Loni. They buried 94 explosives in that area. On 18th, one of these buried rockets found it's way to a site near a brick kiln under Sihani Gate police station area in the city . Meanwhile, residents of more than eight villages in the Loni area too, launched a campaign against the detonation and piling up of explosives in their area.

We don't know yet, what the authorities plan to do with all the shells that have been found so far, and are continuing to be detected. Nobody seems to have enough expertise on the subject.

It has been pointed out that it is not the first time that live shells have been found in scrap consignments. The incidents were mostly overlooked. They were first detected in 1991 at ICD, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. That particular consignment had originated from Iraq. It was during the first gulf war. In 1993 five people died at ICD Tughlaqbad as the live shells hidden inside a consignment exploded. In 1996 again, explosives were found in a consignment of metallic waste. In April 2004, ICD Ludhiana reported live shells and explosives in a scrap consignment. Three months later, 11,000 live cartridges were found inside an empty container by the Container Corporation of India (CONCOR). In August, ICD Tughlaqabad again detected live shells. In all these cases, though the matter was reported to police, no action was taken. On Oct 9th, at ICD Tughlaqabad, 68 shells found, out of which 47 were live.This consignment originated in Somalia, and was imported by an Indian firm called Norma. Customs officers detected the shells on Aug 7th, but neither CBEC nor police took any notice of Customs report to them. It was only after the incident in Bhushan Steel factory that CBEC and police decided to act. Last month, in Uttaranchal, rocket shells were found in Pauri district.

Given this record, it is obvious that the munitions are sneeking into India, through iron scraps because the ports and ICDs are not equipped enough to check them. Also, they sneek-in whenever US rages a war on Iraq, as it happened during the first gulf war too. And, when business gets high priority, safety and survival takes a back seat.

There are no electronic scanners and sensors at the ICDs or even at the ports. They don't have adequate staff to do physical verification of each and every consignment. Only in suspicious cases consignments are examined thoroughly, that is, manually. But that is time consuming, and business houses donot like that. A proposal has been made that X-ray machines be installed at ports to scan all consignments, and that all scrap containers be subject to 100% examination, before clearance. It has also been suggested that import of loose scrap should be replaced by import of shreddded scrap, as is the norm in most countries. Import of loose scrap if allowed, should be through designated ports only. The suggestions have been acepted by the Director General of Foreign Trade, and notification has been issued. Restrictions on import of scrap from war ravaged countries have also been tightened. Dubai has tightened its rules too. Yes, the authorities have woken up, and directives issued. The administration needs to be tightened at every check point, for banned items can be cleared even by X-ray machines if the officials manning them are not vigilant enough or are corrupt. It happened at Indira Gandhi International Airport on 22/10. The CISF personnel manning X-ray machine failed to detect false revolvers, a banned item, in hand baggage of two passengers, about to board a PIA flight to Karachi. They were caught by PIA sky marshals when they were about to board the aircraft.

The prices of steel are likely to rise as a result of new restrictions. Shredded scrap will eliminate the possibility of shells slipping in, but is costlier. And as is expected, huge volumes of scrap are piling up at ICD as well as at ports like Mundra, Kandla, Mumbai, Kolkata-awaiting clearance. Yes, all this is good and necessary, and we shouldnot complain.

Then, what are we complaining about? Let us come to the bottom of the iceberg, which unfortunately is the most explosive part of the whole story. Metal scrap in India is mainly coming from the Gulf, African and South American countries, as they are cheap. A lot of it is coming from Iraq, via Iran. The port of origin, as declared before the customs is often different from the actual place of origin of the scraps-which would in all probability be a war ravaged country like Iraq. Somalia a war ravaged country is a big scrap collecting port. The rockets, shells and other explosives are passed on by these countries, to the exporting port. Even if India takes up the matter with the exporting ports, we are not sure that they would be able to actually implement full-fledged checking of the consignments, just as in India it has not been possible all these years.

Our contention is that, all the reports revealed so far point to the conclusion that the ammunitions imported with scrap metals are in effect Depleted Uranium (DU) Munitions, hundreds of tonnes of which have been used by US and UK in Iraq. US had used it as a standard weapon in the first gulf war too, and had continued to use it in Balkans and Afghanistan. We can conclude that the same would have happened in Somalia-rather wherever US has intervened so far.

Why do we suspect that the lose rockets and shells imported in India are actually DU munitions? First, consider the properties of DU. DU is a residue left after uranium is enriched for use in nuclear reactors and is also recovered after reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Thus, it is effectively free. Since it is 20% heavier than steel, it can penetrate steel and concrete much more easily than other weapons. It burns at 10,000C. It is radioactive and has toxic effects. Upto 2000 tonnes of DU has been used in Iraq. DU is an effective tank destroyer and bunker buster. DU shells are lethal. When the DU rod inside a shell disintegrates, it disperses over a wide area, spreading radioactive and toxic dust..

Now see what has been said about the lethal shells and rockets found at Bhushan Steels and other places. (1) Eye witnesses said the explosion at Bhushan Steels was so strong that it could be heard a kilometer away from the accident site. (2) The bombs were so powerful that even their splinters left huge craters while being defused. Had the rocket launcher hit the live bombs, the whole factory would have been gutted. Or if the rockets and missiles had been thrown into the boiler, the explosion could have destroyed atleast a 4 km radius area.(3) Officials said that the rockets and missiles recovered at Bhushan Steels were powerful enough to hit targets in Delhi.(4) And most important, they have come from 'war-ravaged countries'. Now what do we mean by 'war-ravaged' countries? Obviously from countries where US has raged a war --the most war-mongering nation in the world. And DU munitions are standard weapons used by US wherever it has raged a war. (5) No check is carried out when scrap is either picked up from or dumped in the yards in the exporting country. In most cases, bulldozers tear down remnants of buildings and bridges that have been bombed. The scrap is then sold off. It is possible that live shells and partially exploded shells are embedded inside the scrap (HT reported).

Since there has been no 'official-check' or declaration, we can only conjecture with near certainty that the munitions exploded and found so far, active or inactive, are DU munitions, which US is proliferating all over the world.

Now, why should we fear DU munitions even when they are inactive or unexploded? We should, more than we fear a nuclear bomb, because they are radioactive, toxic, and cause slow and untold damage to health, ---- and are 'proliferating'. Yes, nuclear bombs proliferate too, but certainly not as much as DU already has, and is threatening to, in all parts of the world, in an invisible way, even into my backyard.

Though opinions vary, there is a general agreement that DU munitions cause health-hazards of extremely serious nature. The Royal Society in Britain set up an independent expert working group to investigate the health hazards of DU munitions. It's two part report has studied the increased risks of radiation-induced cancer from exposures to DU on the battlefield and the risks from the chemical toxicity of Uranium, non-malignant radiation effects from DU intakes, the long term environmental consequences of the deployment of DU munitions etc. Scientists fear that the effects of DU munitions in Iraq would have a fall out for many generations to come. Scientists have urged shell clear-up in Iraq to protect civilians The Royal Society has recommended that fragments of DU penetrators be removed, and areas of contaminations should be identified, and where necessary, made safe. Pentagon however doesnot consider that necessary. Most scientists believe that DU causes cancer and other severe illnesses. According to the Royal Society, both soldiers and civilians in Iraq were in short and long term danger. Children playing at contaminates sites were particularly at risk. The soil around the impact sites of depleted uranium penetrators may be heavily contaminated, and could be harmful if swallowed by children. For example. If it leaks into water supplies, it would pose a long time threat to health. The UN environment program has been tracking the use of DU in Balkans and found it leaking into the water table. Seven years after the conflict it has recommended decontamination of buildings where DU dust is present to protect the civilian population against cancer. DU contaminates the land, air and water, and ultimately destroying the lives of people exposed to it. DU corrodes the soil and exist for a long time in the dust. Evidence is building that DU causes more genetic damage than scientists suspected, even at levels deemed as low as to be non-toxic. A US soldier Keny Duncan was with the Royal Corps of Transport helping to shift Iraqi tanks destroyed by DU shells in 1991 gulf war. He was exposed to DU. All his three children are born with some kind of deformity.

Given this scenario, what is India supposed to do? It is obvious that the actions taken so far, the directives issued by various offices and agencies have failed to take into account the possibility ( rather a near certainty) that the rockets and shells are part of depleted uranium munitions used by US and UK in whichever country they have landed illegally. It should be the responsibility of US and UK, to clear up the shells not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, Balkans, Somalia and so on, but also in India, where they have proliferated due to their irresponsible and monstrous actions. If they have proliferated to India, it is a near certainty that they would proliferate to many other developing and less developed countries, and ultimately back into the developed countries, including even US and UK. In all probability these munitions are being sold by the hard pressed people of war ravaged countries only for money, and not for terrorism. Also, this is one way to get their own country rid of these lethal weapons. One shouldnot underestimate the knowledge and intelligence of poor and illiterate villagers. They may not know the technicalities, but they sure know that these weapons if lie in their neighbourhood would cause extreme damage to their health and also to flora and fauna. For example, in Ghaziabad, it was the villagers of Kanha Upavan and Loni area who were the first ones to protest against the stockpiling and diffusal of explosives in their area.

Recently, a lot of studies have been done on the hazards of DU, but no new regulations have come into effect. We need new International laws and treaties to deal with this menace, which is sure to take a serious turn in the near future, considering the quagmire the US has put itself into, in Iraq. India should speak out, and raise the issue in the UN. Who should be signing the "Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty" (NPT) now?

Meanwhile, at the domestic level, the ammunitions found so far should be given as much weightage as the nuclear bomb was given during Pokhran Test. They should be carried to a desert-may be to Pokhran for disposal, and not to residential localities, or forests, or river beds. There have been suggestions that loose scrap should be banned, and only shredded scrap should be allowed.Yes, shredded scrap would ensure that there are no untoward explosions, but that would still not ensure that shreds of DU ammunitions are not included in that, especially, if imports are being carried out from war-ravaged countries. Thus, imports from war ravaged countries have to be stopped completely. And stringent checks should be carried out at every check-post, even if that means delays and increase in price of steel. Get the priorities right, Mr. Businessman!

In the words of Noam Chomsky (Hegemony or Survival : America's quest for global domiance, Metropolitan books, 2003):

"One can discern two trajectories in current history: one aiming toward hegemony, acting rationally within a lunatic doctrinal framework as it threatens survival; the other dedicated to the belief that "another world is possible", in the words that animate the World Social Forum, challenging the reigning ideological system and seeking to create constructive alternatives of thought, action and institutions."

Keeping this in mind, India should take up the issue with the World bodies.

Notes: "When the dust settles : Depleted uranium may be far more dangerous than previously thought - and we could be dealing with the fallout for many generations to come " The Guardian, April 17, 2003

"Scientists urge shell clear-up to protect civilians: Royal Society spells out dangers of depleted uranium" The Guardian, April 17, 2003.

"The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions: Part 1", Royal Society, May 2001 ISBN: 0854033540

"The health hazards of depleted uranium munitions: Part 2", Royal Society March 2002 ISBN: 0854035745

Z-Net 30/10/2004