Supreme Court orders NGT to expedite Baghjan case
Representational image Credit: Rishu Kalantri

For the first time in Assam’s history, residents of two villages impacted by pollution have knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court seeking environmental justice. Impacted by the disastrous Baghjan oil blowout and fire, two applications by residents of Baghjan and Natun Rongagora demanding compensation were admitted before the Supreme Court of India last week on October 21.

The residents of both villages in the Tinsukia district of Assam, situated close to Dibru Saikhowa National Park, alleged that the victims of the disaster have not been adequately compensated by the authorities even as the National Green Tribunal ordered interim compensation for the affected people of Baghjan. 

After a blowout of May 27 followed by a devastating fire emerging from an oil and gas rig operated by Oil India Limited on June 9, the residents of both the villages, situated near the well, experiencing the blowout, stated in their petitions that they made several attempts to reach out to the authorities. Both the petitions state that the villages were inside the ‘Red Zone’ as demarcated by Tinsukia authorities from where the victims were evacuated and kept in makeshift shelters for months.

“The oil well blow-out resulted in continuous leakage of hydrocarbons for 14 days and emission of extreme heat for 159 days resulting in the destruction of cultivated land and flora and fauna. Further, leakage of condensate on water bodies led to the death of aquatic animals for which authorities declared these areas as a ‘Red Zone’ which caused loss to the livelihood of the fishing community in the area,” the petitions state. 

Also Read | Baghjan blowout: Assam’s forest dept counts ₹25K cr in ecological damage

In June 2020, after the devastating blowout, Bonani Kakkar, a Kolkata based environmentalist, Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Organization (WECO), a Tinsukia-based NGO, Samudrajit Gohain and Soneshwar Narah, two activists from Assam made urgent appeals to NGT seeking action against OIL for destroying the ecologically sensitive habitat and homesteads of the people of Baghjan and surrounding areas. 

On June 24, a preliminary report by an expert committee indicated that the victims of the blowout and the fire will be compensated in three categories depending on the scale of the losses. The petitioners before the Supreme Court alleged that after a tripartite agreement between OIL, victims of the disaster and Tinsukia district authorities, the compensation amount was reduced and divided into two categories – Category ‘A’ for 161 families receiving Rs. 15 lakh and Rs 10 lakh for 439 families in Category ‘B’.

“Pertinently, the above-stated compensation was only an interim measure for the emergent need of the victims. The actual compensation for the mass destruction is to be determined after a final assessment of the loss,” stated the petition of Baghjan residents represented by Manoj Hazarika, a resident of Dighaltarang village, who along with five others knocked on the doors of the apex court. 

Also Read | NGT appoints OIL to investigate damage of Baghjan blowout

On the other hand, Niranta Gohain, a local environmentalist and resident of Natun Rongagora village, along with 12 others are seeking appropriate compensation for 366 families. Situated on the banks of Maguri Motapung Wetland, which was impacted by the blowout, Natun Rongagora residents claimed that apart from Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 for their makeshift stay arrangements, authorities never considered the villagers for the compensation as fixed by the NGT appointed committee. Gohain had approached Gauhati High Court for compensation immediately after the incident in 2020, which was dismissed by the court stating Assam Government had already launched an enquiry about the incident. Later, Kakkar and others approached NGT.  

Both the petitions were filed as intervention application in the case filed by Bonani Kakkaragainst OIL. Kakkar challenged the NGT verdict delivered earlier in which OIL was included in a committee for restoration and remediation. Supreme Court overturned the NGT order after Kakkar reached the apex court and left OIL out of the committee.

In February 2021, however, NGT could not adjudicate the case further citing the absence of authentic data about the victims. While NGT allowed the victims of the disaster to approach any other court to demand fair compensation, the Tribunal indicated floor level compensation could be arrived at by some ‘guesswork’, the higher compensation amounts could be adjudicated.

The petitioners from Baghjan had received interim compensation, but, according to Hazarika, the compensation does not guarantee any future for them in the village. In the last one year aggrieved Baghjan residents held several meetings, and even wrote letters to past as well as the Present Chief Minister of Assam.

“It is submitted that the Applicants have diligently pursued their grievance before the designated authorities. That the Applicants have held several meetings with the District Collector after the impugned judgment [of the NGT] and made representation to Hon’ble Mr. Justice B.P. Katakey, Chairperson of the Enquiry Committee constituted by this Hon’ble Court,” stated the petition of Manoj Hazarika. 

Also Read | SC reconstitutes a new committee to assess Baghjan blowout case

The village residents who approached the court have identified themselves as stakeholders in the ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court.

“The Applicants are stakeholders in the present lis [litigation] and seek to assist this Hon’ble Court by providing valuable views on remedial action for restoration of the environment based on their experience, being an inherent part of the ecological system of the area and dependent upon it for their survival,” stated the petitions filed by senior advocate Liz Mathew.

Gohain told EastMojo the decision to approach the apex court was taken collectively by the residents of the two villages after several meetings.

“Facing several hardships, challenges and even threats, we have finally reached the Supreme Court. Despite several attempts, authorities did not listen to us. Pollution from the oil industry and threat to Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the people is a serious issue. We hope this would pave the way for other villages to seek justice for the environment and sufferings of people in the state,” he said.

With the Supreme Court constituting a committee headed by former Gauhati High Court judge B.P. Katakey for remediation and restoration of the fragile ecology of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, OIL submitted before the court it deposited Rs 50 lakhs for the committee on September 21. Justice Katakey will submit a bunch of reports which is likely to pave the way for the restoration and remediation of the pollution that was caused by OIL during and after the blowout. 

Also Read | Several injured in police action to disperse protestors in Assam’s Baghjan

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