The Brahmaputra Valley Fertilizer Corporation Limited (BVFCL) at Namrup in Assam’s Dibrugarh district is in a “critical” state, with officials fearing that the factory might not survive for long. A blast in the ammonia-urea unit (Unit –II) on Monday has led to an indefinite shutdown of Namrup II, while the failure to meet annual production targets since past two years with “obsolete” machineries is likely to trigger a closure of the oldest gas-based fertilizer plant.
“We haven’t been able to produce even 2 lakh metric tonne for the current fiscal year yet. Last year, the production was about 2.70 LMT, but this year it will go down further, falling short of the target. It’s a worrying situation,” said BVFCL public relations officer Pranab Bhattacharjee.
“We are still assessing the loss due to the blast in Unit-II, and it could be a long shutdown – the machinery and equipment damaged are not available easily,” he added. The Namrup II unit has completed 44 years of production, and Namrup III 33 years – it is the only operational unit now. However, the lifespan of such factories is reportedly not more than 15 years.
The Namrup Regional Students’ Union alleged a “political conspiracy” in the explosion, and has demanded a thorough inquiry. Opposing the government’s move to privatise both the Nagaon Paper Mill (NPM), Jagiroad and the Cachar Paper Mill (CPM), the students’ body is apprehensive that BVFCL, also called the Namrup Fertilizer Complex, would face a similar fate.
“The BVFCL is dying a slow death like the Nagaon Paper Mill. A number of mishaps have happened in this sector leading to losses in crores. The blasts, the Centre’s pending approval for Namrup IV Project, severe shortage of urea, production crisis – could these all be interrelated? The blasts have all taken place in the night when workers are not present,” said Dibrugarh district students’ union (DDSU) assistant general secretary Abani Kumar Gogoi.
In June 2006, the-then union fertilizer minister Ram Vilas Paswan declared in Namrup that to meet market demands and to keep BVFCL strong, a new fertilizer unit will be established to replace the ageing Namrup II and III units, which he compared to the ‘Hindustan Ambassador’ of bygone times.
In a cabinet meeting in May 2015, the government of India decided to set up the Namrup IV unit in the BVFCL premises. Initially, it was supposed to have a capacity of 8.646 LMT per annum, but later a proposal came up for installation of a standard-size gas-based ammonia-urea plant with a capacity of 12.70 LMT per annum by forming a joint venture of CPSEs and the Assam government. Under this project, National Fertilizers Limited (NFL) holds a 35 per cent share, Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers Ltd (RCF) 17 per cent, BVFCL 11 per cent, Oil India Ltd 26 per cent and the state government has an 11 per cent stake in the plant.
In September 2019, union minister of chemicals and fertilizers DV Sadananda Gowda announced during his visit to BVFCL that the work for Unit-IV would commence soon, and the existing Namrup II and Namrup III would be revamped and refitted with new machineries. But even as the government claims there is no dearth of funds for development in Northeast, the new Unit-IV project is still in cold storage.
“They must have faced some technical problem for failing to set up the fourth unit. But Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal had assured that all technical problems would be sorted within three months. It would take about 42-36 months to establish a new unit, and until that period, Namrup II and Namrup III should be revived. The government had earmarked a fund of Rs 100 crore for this, but no fund has been released yet,” said Bhattacharjee.
Chief minister Sonowal had visited Namrup on September 26 last year and held a meeting with BVFCL officials along with representatives from Assam Petro-chemicals Ltd.
“The CM is well aware of the bottleneck and the market position. Our monthly expenditure is around Rs 40 crore, we have to pay about Rs 25-27 crore for gas alone. Moreover, because of frequent breakdown due to obsolete machinery and old technology, the plants could not perform as expected. Namrup III is often plagued with compressor problems and technical snags. These units need extensive maintenance for sustained operations,” he explained, adding that BVFCL has tied up with NFL to produce a fixed amount of MUKTA or Neem Coated Urea to meet orders from customers across Assam and the Northeast, eastern India, Bangladesh and Nepal.