The ammonium nitrate explosion tragedy in Beirut was avoidable. It also has lessons for India.
Chemicals are complex creatures. Ammonium nitrate, for example, is used for fertilisers, although it is being phased out in some countries.
But, as we saw, it is almost bomb-like in its propensity to explode. In India, chemicals are handled both formally and informally, even the most toxic of them. For example, people come in contact with mercury and pesticides. So, although we don't know of an ammonium nitrate crisis in the public domain, let's try to avoid one.
At the risk of stating what many people know already, here are a few foundational steps. First, ministries concerned, with a lead from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, should identify the most explosive chemicals still in use.
Second, a handling protocol should be prepared based on the field observations of current practices. Some of these can restrict how much to store, how to store, and how long to store. We know that over time, chemicals lying in godowns can be forgotten till they kill.
Third, the protocol has to be disseminated innovatively, both at the grassroot level and the local administration. Capacity building is essential — how should people measure, handle and monitor? What should a trader in a chemical bazaar know, for example? And of course, registry systems should be strengthened, and made easier to use. These are just the basics. We need to roll them, and many more, out before we are struck by a chemical catastrophe.