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Bhopal is also about security

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 21, 2010

    The Indian media is abuzz with news on Bhopal gas tragedy. The debate is mainly concentrated on fixing the blame for allowing the perpetrator of the crime to leave the country. However, this ‘opportunity’ provided by the lack of justice in Bhopal gas tragedy and the nationwide debate thereon should not be wasted in only scoring political brownie points. While it is important to know the truth behind the escape of the then Union Carbide chief, it is also important to widen the scope of debate to check whether in the 21st century the nature of threat has changed and if so who are the new actors?

    Spilling of gas from a chemical factory can happen because of multiple reasons: from accidental release to sabotage. In this era of terrorism such threats need to be reviewed on a much broader canvas. Industrial disasters could be made to happen intentionally. Also, poisonous gases could be spread intentionally to damage crops or kill animals. For this terrorists could use certain type of chemical weapons to create mayhem. In the past they have done this in some parts of the world and there is a no guarantee that they may not do it again. Unfortunately, chemical terrorism is one aspect of terrorism which is rarely discussed in spite it being a part of the most dreaded terror threat called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Terrorism, with the other two being nuclear and biological terrorism.

    Commonly used chemical weapons like Mustard agents came of age as early as World War I, and nerve agents were discovered in the mid-1930s. Chemical weapons were also used during the 1980s by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Various types of chemical agents like hydrogen cyanide, mustard gas, sarin, VX, etc, are available or could be manufactured easily. For a state like North Korea the presence of chemical weapons is very important in order to boost its conventional military power. Presently, North Korea is believed to be the world's biggest possessor of chemical weapons. In its present standoff with South Korea it is believed that in case of necessity Pyongyang may even use these weapons by using various delivery platforms including Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missiles.

    There are some non-state actors who are believed to have developed interest in chemical weapons. The LTTE was supposed have acquired know how of these categories of weapons though they were never used by the group. US intelligence sources believe that an Egyptian called Midhat Mursi Al Sayyid Umar, a chemical engineer by profession is known to be currently leading the chemical, biological and radiological weapons programme for Al Qaeda. During 1995 a chemical substance called sarin was used by a religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo in a Tokyo subway which killed five people, severely injured many and caused temporary blindness of thousands. In 1997 in a Sydney shopping mall two chlorine bombs were exploded hurting some people. These could be isolated incidences, but they demonstrate the nature of the danger confronting us.

    It is mostly felt that for terrorist groups chemical terrorism is a not viable option. This is because it could be difficult to hide their intentions. Probably no major chemical terrorism incidents have occurred till date because vast quantities of agents would be required to successfully mount a mass casualty attack. Perhaps that is why terrorists are still on the lookout for suitable options for delivering such poisonous gases effectively on the target of their choice. Analysts feel that one of the options which the terrorists may opt for in the future is to insert poison gas into a building through its ventilator system. In 2002, Russian authorities had used this technique to subdue Chechen terrorists who had besieged a theatre in Moscow. A gas called fentanyl was used to flush out the terrorists. Unfortunately, the gas also caused the death of hundreds of civilians.

    India, a victim of terrorism and internal unrest, hence needs to factor in issues like Chemical Terrorism in its security discourse. The Indian administration and Indian armed forces are aware of these threats and have done some initial work towards addressing them. Last year Defence Minister A. K. Antony had stated while releasing the national guidelines compiled by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) on the management of chemical terrorism disaster that the terrorists are using more aggressive means to spread terror and can resort to chemical weapons in future.

    However, all current Indian efforts are more ‘reactive’ in nature - if any untoward incidence happens we know how to address it. Even for this we lack the basic infrastructure to undertake disaster management particularly in terms of medical facilities. The issue is, what have we learned from Bhopal? Do we know from where the threat from terrorism is likely to emanate and in what from? Have we profiled the terrorist groups operational in India and their international ‘supports’ in terms of their interest in such weapons? Is the possibility of sabotage in chemical industry factored into our risk assessment?

    Presently, the Indian chemical industry is witnessing an explosive growth. It has major segments like petrochemicals, organic and inorganic chemicals, drugs, paints, agrochemicals, etc. India is involved in exports worth $US 7 to 8 billion a year. The problem with the Indian industry is that it is highly fragmented and hence difficult to regulate. It consists of both big as well as small players and has a large domestic market. At many places industries are situated in the heart of the city and are surrounded by residential colonies. Such places could become potential targets for sabotage or a terrorist group may even launch an attack on chemical stores in the factories by using explosive devices. Today, even the basic identification of industries which may pose danger has not been done. There is a lack of credible database in regard to the toxic gases and chemicals that are traded and used by the chemical industry. Also, every state within the country is wooing major chemical industrial houses to make investments in their states. In this mad rush for getting FDI, are we doing the security audit for them scrupulously?

    Bhopal is beyond politics, it is about human security. More than 15,000 people have died and many are living dreadful lives reminding us of what a chemical disaster can do. In this era of terrorism such disasters could also be human made. The momentum created by the Bhopal verdict should not be wasted. It is essential to learn more about chemical terrorism in the Indian context.