The recent explosion in hanger 12 at the Port of Beirut which resulted in large scale damage to life and property, has had reverberations across the globe. It was a sharp wake up call to authorities in India with the Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs (CBIC) ordering an immediate verification of uncleared hazardous cargo in the ports.
India has 12 major ports and 65 non-major ports handling import, export and transshipment cargo. This is apart from the more than 127 Inland Container Depots (ICD) created as a trade facilitation measure in the hinterland and the 167 Container Freight Station (CFS) which are extended arms of the port. Being at the point of entry and exit, the Customs enforces apart from the Customs Act, a host of other laws including The Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules and the Hazardous & Other Wastes (HOW) (Management & Transboundary Movement) Rules, in so far as they relate to import.
Hazardous chemicals have been defined as those which satisfy specified toxicity criteria. Hazardous waste has been defined as ‘any waste which by reason of any of its physical, chemical, reactive, toxic, flammable, explosive or corrosive characteristics causes danger or is likely to cause danger to health or environment whether alone or in contact with other wastes or substances’. These are wide definitions and make the task of identifying hazardous cargo challenging.
The total container traffic handled in 2019 was in excess of 16 million TEU’s (twenty equivalent units) with chemicals the largest single group of commodities in terms of volume. (Incidentally, India’s chemical industry is the sixth-largest in the world.) Given the traffic, and the emphasis on ease of doing business, the Customs have adopted a robust risk management system. Thus, while there is self-assessment, the documentation goes through a risk appraisal and action taken accordingly. Consignments which are deemed to be risky are subject to examination.
Major Customs ports have in-house labs to test and assist in the detection of suspected hazardous goods. Hazardous cargo is either banned (like ozone-depleting substances) or regulated (for instance, ammonium nitrate) -and action initiated. Having detected and detained a hazardous cargo, the greater difficulty is at its disposal. This differs, depending on the hazardous nature from incineration, to disposal in secured landfill by designated agencies. While the accepted norm is that the polluter pays, in very many cases the delinquent importer is not available. Thus, every Indian port has uncleared containers -blocking valuable space and posing a potential danger. It is estimated that there are more than 100000 uncleared containers in the various ports—the numbers of containers of hazardous cargo out of these are not known.
Given the gravity of the issue, the Supreme Court on a writ petition number 657/95 filed by an NGO, constituted a Monitoring Committee. The Committee was tasked to examine uncleared consignments of hazardous cargo in ports to ensure its speedy disposal. The matter was transferred to the National Green Tribunal to monitor and ensure compliance with the rules. The status report filed earlier this year by the Central Pollution Control Board and available at makes interesting reading. There are multifarious regulations under the umbrella Environment Protection Act and nine Ministries/Departments engaged in their implementation. With so many players and consequential diffusion of responsibility, there is a danger of hazardous cargo slipping between the cracks.
The CAG has recently carried out a performance audit of CFS’s and ICD’s. (Report 16/2018). They have highlighted the non-availability of specified demarcated areas and space for the storage of hazardous goods. Given the fact that the ICD’s and CFS’s are normally in/nearer the city limits, uncleared hazardous cargo poses a greater threat. The responsibility lies with the custodian of the goods who should take necessary steps.
The CBIC has recently upgraded the revenue laboratories so essential for the customs officers to identify the nature of the goods. Funds also should be made available for disposal of confiscated/uncleared hazardous cargo. Where the polluter is not available the shipping lines should be made responsible. One possible solution is to insist on pre-shipment certification from the port of origin in all cases of hazardous cargo—an effective solution in the past in the case of metal scrap originating from war-torn countries.
The Beirut blast occurred when an uncleared consignment of ammonium nitrate exploded. It has been said that there was correspondence between the port, the customs and the courts, spread over six years seeking permission for its disposal. Apparently, there was no response—leading ultimately to fatal consequences.
This scenario sounds ominously familiar. Urgent co-ordination between all agencies is called for to ensure all uncleared hazardous consignments are identified and disposed before God forbid any such eventuality.