Making Quite A Bomb
How workers without intel clearance get into an explosives lab
A Defence Lab Breached?
- The High Energy Materials Research Lab (HEMRL), Pune, has outsourced the production of TATB, an explosive, to a private firm, Viswaat, with which an ex-director of HEMRL is associated
- The firm does not have a licence to manufacture explosives
- Worse, the workforce—which does not have intelligence clearance—enters the HEMRL facility to carry out the work
- Local auditors have questioned payments, attendance records etc
- Based on anonymous complaints and these audits, the CBI is investigating all work undertaken by Viswaat Chemicals
What Is TATB
- TATB (or triamino trinitro benzene) is an explosive yellow powder
- Being extremely stable, it’s called for in high-risk situations
- One use of TATB is as a primer in nuclear warheads
- Mixed with fuel oil or other binders, it can be used for bomb-making by terrorists When the CBI begins to investigate a premier defence research institute, the findings can be explosive. Quite literally so, in this case. Imagine the production of a restricted explosive substance being outsourced by a specialised government lab—that too to an unlicensed private firm. It’s just such a flagrant security lapse that was involved when the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL), Pune, run by the venerable Defence Research & Development Organisation, parcelled out a production contract for the explosive triamino trinitro benzene (TATB) to Viswaat Chemicals. The storyline is by now familiar from other scams: a former director of HEMRL, Dr Haridwar Singh, is associated with Viswaat. The CBI probe began on anonymous complaints and local audits citing the conflict of interest. But especially worrisome is the security angle. One, Viswaat allegedly does not yet have a licence for producing explosives; and two, the workforce it provides does not have intelligence clearance.TATB may be a relatively lesser known one in the roster of explosive acronyms, but it packs quite a punch: it weighs in under rdx on the impact scale, but above TNT. Maj Gen G.D. Bakshi (retd), an explosives expert, says, “In the current scenario—take Monday’s terror attack in a high-security zone in Delhi—substances used to make explosives must always be guarded. If anyone manages to smuggle TATB out of the factory, it can be used for any purpose. The purpose of intelligence checks is to prevent free accessibility. Also, untrained personnel may, without knowing the implications, sell the stuff, leading to disastrous consequences.”Viswaat is said to have applied for the relevant manufacturing licence to the Union industries ministry’s chief controller of explosives, headquartered in Nagpur. (It issues licences under laws governing the manufacture, use and transport of explosives, petroleum products and flammable substances.) The non-issuance of a licence may well be attributed to procedural delay. But it’s the fact of the workforce supplied by the firm not having intelligence clearance that experts cite as a serious internal security threat. In such circumstances, uncleared employees—or anyone claiming connections to Viswaat, for that matter—could gain access to the high-security HEMRL facility.Vidya Krishnan, an SP with the Pune branch of CBI, which is in charge of the probe, confirmed the firm and the lab were being investigated but said “revealing anything beyond this wouldn’t be possible at this stage”. However, sources said Viswaat has been working with DRDO since 2000 on what are known as government-owned, company-operated (GOCO) projects, taking on assignments outsourced by the Advanced Centre for Energetic Materials (ACEM), Nasik, and the Advanced Systems Laboratory, Jagdalpur. Those close to the investigation said all contracts obtained by the firm are now under the scanner. The amount isn’t comparable, say, to the Devas–Antrix deal—it’s no more than Rs 15 crore—but the security angle, given that explosives are involved, helps it take on immense gravity.Before the CBI took on the case, local-level government auditors had in 2009-10 raised serious objections to the contracts, pointing to discrepancies in allocation of work and the bill claims made for the workforce. One report, for example, says: “Please intimate the costing formula adopted for fixing the price of TATB at Rs 11,000 per kg and whether any concurrence has been obtained from audit authorities”. They had also sought inspection of documentary proof of raw material being brought into HEMRL by the contractor for producing TATB and the roster of employees deployed for production schedules, saying there was no uniform system for maintaining attendance records. That is a security gap even accounts auditors homed in on, though they were looking at it only from the payments angle: records say Viswaat had provided less manpower in Jan-Feb 2010, but payments made to it weren’t calculated accordingly. Similarly, there were no records of the entry and exits of vehicles the contractor was supposed to provide; again, the auditors looked at it from the payments angle, but the security angle looms large.
- Dr Singh put on a brave face when asked to comment. “I am aware of the CBI inquiry against Viswaat—these days an inquiry can be initiated against anyone,” he said. “But I know I’ll come out clean.” And although investigators believe he heads Viswaat, Dr Singh maintains his role is that of independent director, and hence “very limited”, which is why he doesn’t know much about the contracts obtained by the company. About the explosives licence, he says, “I think the company was not into explosives earlier, and then started working in the field, so it had to apply for one. I’m not involved with the company directly, so I wouldn’t be part of the process. They requested me after retirement to join them, so I did, as an independent director.”
As for the DRDO, its public interface director, Ravi Gupta, was circumspect: “The contract related to production of TATB was awarded after following duly laid down procedures. It won’t be appropriate to make any further comments as the matter pertains to sensitive defence projects.” That really seems to be the whole point. Should a sensitive issue like this be handled in such a fancy-free manner?