Fertiliser bomb fears persist despite ammonium nitrate ban

By Prathiba Raju, IANS,

New Delhi : India has banned the open sale of ammonium nitrate, found to have been used most recently in the Mumbai triple explosions, but experts are concerned that the directive has come too late and still leaves scope for the misuse of the chemical widely used by farmers to increase soil fertility.

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In a July 27 notification, exactly two weeks after the July 13 triple bombings that killed around 25 people, the government listed ammonium nitrate under the Explosives Act, 1884, and banned its open sale, purchase and manufacture.

“Although the government seems to have woken up by banning the open sale of ammonium nitrate, a fertiliser used for bomb making, it has not given a detailed instruction on how the open sale can be banned. It’s a commonly used fertiliser by farmers,” a forensic expert told IANS on condition of anonymity.

More worrying, experts believe, are the several loopholes in the notification.

“The government has specified that it will invoke penal action only if the composition has 45 percent or more ammonium nitrate content. But if 45 percent ammonium nitrate is mixed with more of black gunpowder, the bombs can be of high velocity. If it is mixed with smokeless powder, the velocity will be relatively low,” said B.K. Sharma, a senior lecturer of forensic science in Amity Institute.

Specific rules and stricter restrictions, according to the Indian Forensic Science institute in Pune, should be in place to curb the open sale of ammonium nitrate since it’s a powerful oxidiser agent and can make a powerful explosive if mixed, handled and stored in certain ways.

A top official of the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers admitted: “A ban on the open sale of the common fertiliser alone cannot make a difference. The government should channelise the sale or keep a track of buyers. A check on the storage level is necessary.”

He said the seller should procure a licence to transport or sell ammonium nitrate. In addition to this, the government can also ask the sellers of this fertiliser to maintain a stock register.

“The government can also think of introducing a permit for the purchase the fertiliser,” the ministry official said, indicating the road ahead.

While experts debate the question, the other concern is the option for farmers, who widely depend on ammonium nitrate to improve soil fertility.

“While the rules and guidelines should be enforced effectively, they should not affect genuine users. It is a commonly used fertiliser by the farmers and they should not be put into difficulty,” Madhukar Gupta, former home secretary, told IANS.

In 2007, Gupta, who was then home secretary, had alerted all state governments about “free diversion” of the substance.
Though some countries had banned ammonium nitrate, India could not follow suit as it was widely used here, he said. However, transport and usage levels of ammonium nitrate can be controlled.

Germany, Colombia, Ireland, the Philippines and China are amongst the countries to have banned ammonium nitrate.

In India, the process to ban ammonium nitrate was hastened after it was found to be the main explosive used in the July 13 serial blasts in Zaveri Bazar, Dadar and Opera House.

Some US states had regulated its use after the chemical was found to have been used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 in which more than 150 people were killed.

More recently, in 2010, the Afghan government banned ammonium nitrate as it was found to be used in bombs targeting American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

(Prathiba Raju can be contacted at [email protected])