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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Perils of India's scrap metal

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Ghaziabad

In a small desolate area in the middle of the bustling industrial city of Ghaziabad, barely 20km from Delhi, the Indian army is busy preparing to detonate more than 50 live rockets and other projectiles.

Weapons in Iraq
Much of the scrap comes from the war in Iraq

For more than two weeks, a team from the army has been checking and defusing shells recovered from 11 truck-loads of scrap metal imported by a private company, Bhushan Steel, based in Ghaziabad.

The army was called in after 10 workers at this private foundry were killed last month when the heavy metal scrap they were handling exploded.

The blast was caused by live shells in the imported scrap. Bhushan Steel officials said the scrap had come from Iran via Dubai.

The explosion in Ghaziabad has seen the entire Indian administration swing into action.

Hundreds of live and spent shells have been recovered in subsequent checks across India.

Most have been found in the north and west of India where the majority of steel smelting units are based.

Rich in ammunition

India has been importing heavy melting scrap by the container load for decades.

India has become a haven for dumping this kind of war material
Brigadier Arun Sehgal,
defence analyst

War scrap is valued because it contains copper and tank metal.

Experts say debris from the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the increased supply coming in from Iraq since the American-led war there has made the region a big source of scrap.

But it is scrap that is unsorted and is often rich in live ammunition and explosives.

Most developed countries have either banned scrap metal imports from war zones or have strict rules of entry.

But poorer countries such as India need to tighten their laws.

"India has become a haven for dumping this kind of war material - what we call unexploded ordnance," Brigadier Arun Sehgal, of the Indian Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, told BBC News Online.

"The material is coming from as close as Iraq and as far as Bosnia and Kosovo."

"Rich countries such as America have a strong container security system in place. But poor countries like India do not have that."

Brigadier Sehgal is calling for a strong system of screening before loading, as well as in India when the scrap arrives at port.

"People are not aware of what they are importing but they are definitely aware of its value. For example, the alloy that is found from heavy tank material sells at a very high price.

Scrap metal at the Bhushan Steel plant
Scrap metal at the Bhushan Steel plant
"But there are obvious dangers because of the presence of live ammunition in such scrap."

Bhushan Steel denies any wrongdoing over the deaths of workers at its site.

It says it had already acquired the relevant certificate, as per Indian government rules, from its Dubai suppliers stating that the material did not contain any explosives.

The vice-president of Bhushan Steel, Rahul Sen Gupta, insists his company has been victimised. The company has started legal action against the suppliers.

Mr Gupta told the BBC his company had now decided to stop dealing in heavy metal scrap.


But there are hundreds of importers who will continue in the business because of its high returns.

I shudder to think what might have happened if the rockets had exploded somewhere else during the journey to India
Ghaziabad resident

The government says it will formulate a policy to provide more effective screening of such explosives while ensuring that the country's steel industry is not hurt.

India imports 3.65m metric tonnes of scrap every year worth $730m.

Nearly 500 containers of metal scrap arrive at ports every day.

Customs officials say it is impossible to manually check all the scrap because most of the smaller ports are not equipped with screening facilities. Only one port, Nhawa Shewa, has an electronic screening system.

Officials warn that the cost of installing electronic screening in all 32 ports could be prohibitive.

Independent checks call

In the meantime, the central government has asked state governments to step up vigilance.

The field where the army will explode the shells from Ghaziabad
The field where the army will explode the shells from Ghaziabad

It has recommended that metal scrap should be imported in shredded or compacted form and the un-shredded metal should be allowed in only through major ports with facilities for screening.

However, independent analysts are calling for a temporary ban on scrap from Iran and other zones that are, or have recently, been in war.

They also want independent organisations to inspect the scrap.

Three ministries jointly responsible for various aspects of metal import are coordinating efforts to deal with the issue, but worries over safety continue to grow.

One Ghaziabad resident said: "I shudder to think what might have happened if the rockets had exploded somewhere else during the hundreds of kilometres of journey into India.

"How did it get into our country in the first place?"

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