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Tianjin Blasts: Lessons For India – Analysis

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By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan*

Last week’s chemical blasts in the Chinese port city of Tianjin, killing 114 people and injuring another 700, has raised many issues regarding the safety and security of handling hazardous chemicals and such other materials. The area where the blast took place is a major base for petrochemical and other industrial activities. The blast took place in a warehouse of a private company, Ruihai Logistics. The company, established in 2001, apparently was licensed to handle dangerous materials and reportedly managed around 1 million tons of cargo per year. However, the proximity of the site to residential areas (closer than what is permitted) suggests there were loopholes in the current license granting process or possible corruption in securing the license or even failures in the regulatory practices.

While there is yet no clarity on what caused the explosion, it appears to be similar to a long list of safety related accidents that China has seen in recent years. Reports suggest that corrupt practices and lapses in safety and security compliances have contributed to many casualties in China’s mining industry each year. In July this year, there was an explosion at a fireworks depot, killing 15 people and a year ago, another explosion in a car factory in Shanghai killed a dozen people.

While a full probe is being done in Tianjin, initial reports suggest the presence of hundreds of tons of highly toxic sodium cyanide at the explosion site. Authorities claim that there has been no spillage and that steps were being taken to get rid of the material. But there is wide-spread criticism on the manner in which the post-blast situation has been handled. For instance, the public was not provided appropriate information on potential public health threats.

Does the Tianjin blasts have any lessons for India? India has several large chemical industry clusters, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Despite the dual-use applications of many of these materials, the control of hazardous chemicals has not been exactly foolproof. For India, the threat is manifold. The fact that India is situated in a neighbourhood that combines a deadly mix of religious extremism and terrorism and states like Pakistan that sponsor terrorism makes the threat ever more dangerous. On the other hand, there are also internal challenges from the growing number of research laboratories and private parties handling CBR materials. The ease of access to material, expertise and know-how is also a factor. Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI, London) had done a study in 2012 to evaluate CBR security and safety in India, both in policy and practice.1 The conclusions of this study suggested a mixed picture regarding India’s CBR security. While there were a lot of aspects of domestic CBR security that India can be satisfied with, there were also aspects in Indian policy and practice that required greater focused attention. One of the worrying trends is in terms of policy focus – given the numerous threats and challenges that India faces on its internal and external security front, CBR security appears quite low in the overall security prioritization. The fact that there has been no major incident arising out of security lapses in the CBR arena has made Indian authorities lax about it. These are visible both in the policy and institutional architecture governing CBR security. While the big industry houses are realistic about the threats and accordingly have instituted the best practices available globally, small and medium-size industries project an indifferent approach to the issue. This can cost India dearly from a human, environment and industrial security perspective.

India has several different institutions and agencies – Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the Central Pollution Control Board – that deal with on-site and off-site security as well as the regulatory functions in this domain. But the absence of an over-arching law covering chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) threats is a big lacunae. While there are separate laws that deal with Chemical, Biological and Radiological aspects, including the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008 and the Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Delivery Systems Act, 2005, the need for one comprehensive and cohesive approach is real because despite these separate rules and regulations in place, there have been incidents that illustrated the need for a more calibrated approach.

There were calls, in the backdrop of the Bhopal gas tragedy, for reforming the institutional and legal architecture but decades have gone by with no action and there are cases of non-compliance in this sector to boot. The chlorine gas leak in the Mumbai port in 2010, leading to the hospitalisation of 118 people and another in 2008 affecting 230 people in Karnataka are just two instances in this regard. It is understandable that controlling the access of these materials poses a major challenge give their large-scale utility in the civilian sector. But the easy access to chemicals is being exploited by terrorists. For instance, ammonium nitrate, a popular ingredient used by terrorists, has large utility in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors and therefore, despite the control imposed by the government, it still finds way into the open market. This means that factories and industries that use the hazardous materials have to exercise greater control as well as comply with the safety measures in order to avoid a Tianjin-like incident.

Also the central regulatory agencies such as the Central Pollution Control Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests have come up with guidelines for emissions and discharges for 104 different industry groupings, but failure to comply with safety measures by industry has been an issue. There have also been important variations in compliance and implementation among industries and regions. These need to be fixed if India has to avoid disasters like Tianjin. The big industrial houses, which lead the way and even go beyond national norms in terms of policies, practices and compliance have a role in formulating new norms and ensuring better practices. Trade associations and other industrial bodies that have engagements with global agencies in this regard should also play a role in strengthening greater compliance across the industry. This is an area that truly requires government-private sector cooperation and coordination, in addition to greater regulatory synergy between government agencies.

1. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Tobias Feakin, Jennifer Cole, Rahul Prakash, Wilson John and Andrew Somerville, Chemical, Biological and Radiological Materials: An Analysis of Security Risks and Terrorist Threats to India (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 2012).

*Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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