Tinsukia: In the middle of a wet pre-monsoon spell that hit Assam and neighbouring states last week, Ritu Chandra Moran, a resident of Baghjan village in Doomdooma district of Assam wanted to try his luck by planting kosu (taro) saplings in his farm. He tried growing paddy and maize earlier. The maize crop withered away prematurely and the cucumbers came out stunted.
On that rainy morning, he had barely dug a few inches when oil slick oozed out of the hole meant for the stout Kosu tubers – considered as a cheap source of nutrition for humans and cattle. Moran was desperate to turn his land productive after two years since a devastating blowout in an oil rig that spewed contaminants on his land. In the peak of the COVID 19 pandemic, the rig operated by the Indian government owned Oil India Limited (OIL) experienced a blowout on May 27, 2020 releasing vast amounts of condensates into the water bodies and farms near the rig.
On June 9, 2020, the rig caught fire that led to an explosion destroying 12 homes situated on the bank of Maguri Motapung wetland, a part of Dibru Saikhowa National Park’s Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) and a globally recognized birding area. The inferno displaced more than ten thousand people according to an estimate prepared by Tinsukia district administration. The fire quickly engulfed a portion of the wetland which was already contaminated by the incendiary oil condensates instantly killing endangered birds and animals found in the wetland.
More than 75 hectares of land and water bodies around the rig caught fire, spewing condensates over the commons for almost six months, making the incident one of the longest running oil spill and blowout in India. The oil well was capped only after a team of experts from Canada and Singapore brought it under control. The incident exposed several vulnerabilities of the OIL and the district administration in ensuring safety and security of the oil production areas in the country. At present, an area 3.8 square kilometres remains contaminated around the BGN 5, the oil well that experienced the blowout as OIL could not take containment measures on time.
The final hope
Moran and his family lived in one of these 12 homes destroyed by the fire. OIL compensated him and 11 others paying Rs 25 lakhs each as interim compensation after an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The tribunal asked Tinsukia district administration to make two categories of victims depending on the damages to their life and property. In the second category, 600 families from Baghjan were compensated Rs 15 lakhs by OIL. According to Rameshwar Teli, the Union Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas, OIL spent Rs 147.92 crore in compensation and relief to the residents. The NGT case was the result of a petition by Kolkata-based environmentalist Bonani Kakkar. Unhappy with NGT’s final order, Kakkar approached the Supreme Court.
A bench comprising of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah appointed former Gauhati High Court judge B.P. Katakey in a committee along with Professor Qamar Qureshi, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India, Dr Ritesh Kumar, an ecologist and Director of Wetlands International, South Asia, Bedanga Bordoloi, a soil expert and G.S. Dang, an expert on petrochemicals. The committee assessed the blowout incident and suggested restorative measures.
Key factors responsible for the blowout, according to the Supreme Court committee:
“The Baghjan accident was not just a failure on the part of OIL in ensuring necessary health, safety and environmental safeguards, but equally responsible are:
- Complete and comprehensive violations of the principles of eco-sensitive zone notification by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, leading to dangerous concentration of oil and gas producing wells in a highly environmentally sensitive and fragile area of Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve.
- Absence of any meaningful baselines and management plans for Maguri Motapung Wetlands and Dibru Saikhowa National Park, and a lackadaisical approach to management of these biodiversity hotspots.
- Ineffective ecosystem monitoring systems to assess ecosystem health, and absence of infrastructure even at the state level to monitor contaminants related with oil and gas industry.
- Lack of any mechanism for covering risks to human health, livelihoods and assets located within the vicinity of oil and gas production areas.
- Overlooking the risks posed by oil and gas industry in disaster risk reduction planning
- No investment in capacity development (including site and situation specific Standard Operating Procedures) for handling the risks of oil and gas production related accidents.”
Baghjan residents, including those whose houses were damaged by the fire, have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court of India. Along with them, 400-odd residents of Natun Rongagora, a village which was unfairly compensated, are anxiously waiting for the apex court to hear their plea.
Ritu Moran’s neighbour, Labanya Saikia, 35, a single mother raising two daughters and a son has left the charred remains of her old house as it is. “I am waiting for the full compensation to come through. I have received the money for my house. But I lost my shop, my sewing machines, betel nut and tea bushes for which I am yet to be compensated,” said Saikia pointing out to remains of her tailoring equipment lying on the floor of her old house. She further added that she needs job to support her family and wanted to know if she could work as a security personnel guarding OIL’s installations in the village.
Xoruphool Panging too lost her shop and her house but was compensated only for her house. She moved along with her husband, Arabinda and her boy to the outskirts of Tinsukia. “We could not take much when the oil rig caught fire. Our house had concrete pillars which were missing when we returned to see the house after six months,” Panging said. The family could not afford to buy land near Baghjan and then settled for a 2,880 square feet plot after spending nearly half of the compensation they received.
While the court cases were on, Moran rebuilt his home where his house stood once. For over nine months, OIL had parked their equipment on his homestead. He received Rs. 9 lakh for the first three months as rent but OIL did not pay him the rest of the months. Aside from rebuilding his house with the compensation amount, Moran spent around Rs 16 lakh to buy a backhoe loader or what is colloquially known as JCB after a construction machine company.
“When I approached a JCB dealer, they looked at me suspiciously but then I offered to buy the machine with cash,” said Moran. He used the excavator to clean the debris left by OIL inside his compound. Once covered with bamboo thickets, betel nut trees and tea bushes, Moran’s homestead remains barren.
“I had to purchase it. OIL did not clean up my site. It was filled with debris. I had to rent a JCB for Rs 5000 a day. Someone suggested that if I purchase the machine, I could also give it on rent. I can’t rely on agriculture,” he added, showing the stunted cucumbers in his farm.
“We have not planted paddy at all because we cannot risk a crop failure. In April, I planted cucumber and maize which has also failed. At first, the samplings look healthy and then they started withering and yellowing. The fruit sizes are diminished and can’t be used at all,” said Moran, whose house is situated opposite the oil rig.
Even half a kilometre away where Lokkhi Moran’s fields are, there is hardly any change. “I can’t risk growing paddy. We tried growing some vegetables but they have all withered,” said Lokkhi Moran, who also lost his house to the fire.
Ritu Moran’s apprehensions echo with the findings of the Supreme Court committee led by former judge Katakey who in his final report on damage assessment and restoration of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Motapung Wetland stated that only two percent of the contaminated soil spread over 3.8 square kilometre area around the oil rig could be remediated. Based on 33 meetings, numerous studies undertaken by government agencies, the committee noted that it might take 2 to 21 years for different species to recover from the impact of the condensates.
Contamination to Production
Almost ignoring the long-lasting impacts of groundwater and soil contamination due to condensate spillage, Oil India Rural Development Society, a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm of OIL distributed organic fertilizer and crop seeds to Baghjan residents. According to Manoj Hazarika, one of the petitioners in the ongoing Supreme Court case, only 40 percent of distributed crops yielded any results.
“The cabbages were not fully developed while some people managed to grow a few vegetables in their kitchen garden. Similarly, maize and paddy also did not yield any results as most of the paddy fields belonging to Baghjan residents are closer to the oil well that dumped all the condensates on the fields,” said Akheshwar Chetia, a resident of Baghjan. Chetia added that 50-odd families used these seeds and fertilizers.
The Supreme Court committee led by former judge Katakey described the entire exercise of improving productivity of the crop in a contaminated area by distributing fertilizers as misplaced. “The post blowout situation is not a problem of productivity only but the chances of contamination of soil and groundwater. No attempts were made to trace the contaminants of concern in any part of the affected landscape,” the report stated.
Based on the surveys conducted between February and June 2021, the Supreme Court committee discerned that the concentration of highly carcinogenic Poly-Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) in water, soil and sediments of Lohit, Dibru and Maguri-Motapung were significantly higher than those reported in other Indian and global studies on similar accidents. PAHs are highly carcinogenic chemical compounds produced during the incomplete combustion while burning of coal, crude oil and gasoline. These compounds can easily bind with organic material leading to large scale biological degradation of ecosystems impacted by oil spills. Wildlife Institute of India, an autonomous research organization funded by the Central Government, which was also appointed as nodal agency for coordination of Supreme Court-appointed committee, studied the area and found high concentration of PAHs.
Curiously, a report by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), a Delhi based non-profit policy research organization, which was commissioned by OIL in February 2022 however stated that PAHs were detected in only two locations out of 17 monitored locations in the Maguri Motapung Wetland, much of which was below the permissible limits.
The reports furnished by OIL to the Supreme Court reveal a completely different picture of livestock loss and depletion of fish species. On November 13, 2021, the Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) department of OIL wrote to Animal Husbandry Department and Fisheries department seeking details of loss of livestock and fish from the wetlands and river bodies. After receiving the email, Tinsukia district’s animal husbandry department instructed a government veterinary officer posted in Doomdooma and Tinsukia circles through an instant messaging service. Both the government vets completed their survey on the same day and reported back to the district’s head office saying that they did not observe any unnatural mortality in livestock and poultry in the two administrative circles spanning several villages in the Tinsukia district.
While the Doomdooma vet reported some cases of worm-infested animals, his counterpart from Tinsukia reported diarrhoea, bloat and debility, which he also connected to the parasitic worm infestation. Gogoi promptly reported it to HSE department of OIL on the same day he received a request for the data. Although no details were shared with OIL, the district veterinary official stated that he collected the data through the village headman and field workers who were constantly monitoring livestock and elected representatives.
Close to 12,000 people from 10 villages directly depend on the Maguri Motapung wetland spread over 9.6 square kilometres for fishing. Locals have witnessed a drastic drop in the fish catch since the blowout.
“Earlier we used to get 4 to 5 kilos of big fish in one trip. Depending on the demand in the local fish market, we can make two to three trips in 24 hours. Now we get only one kg after two trips,” said Jyoti Barua, a fisher from Natun Rongagora who lives on the bank of Dibru river.
WII’s assessment between June and September 2021 shows that 87 species of fish were reported from Maguri-Motapung wetland which were reduced to 25 species with widespread death of the fish. It reported that fish species’ richness declined by 71 percent and abundance by 81 percent. “WII report highlighted visible symptoms like discoloration, loss of scales, excess mucous secretion and bleeding in fish due to oil toxicity,” the Supreme Court committee report noted.
The Fisheries department in its response to OIL, however, claimed that it was monitoring Dibru river and the Maguri Motapung wetland since November 15, 2020. The District Fishery Development Officer related to OIL that there is no any sign of adverse impact and deterioration of water quality from November 15, 2020 to November 15, 2021.
“In this regard, it is confirmed that there is no report received of any extinction fish species [sic] during the period from 15-11-2020 to till date [15-11-2021],” the fisheries’ official stated. Coincidentally, it was only on November 15, 2020 that experts from Canada and Singapore snubbed the oil fire that started burning from June 9, 2020. The district fisheries department also did not share details of monitoring in Dibru river and Maguri Motapung wetland with OIL, which annexed these reports in an affidavit filed at the Supreme Court.
Incidentally, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden, M.K. Yadava headed an investigation on behalf of Government of Assam, which documented nine instances of livestock including calves, ducks and silkworms in his report. Yadava further added that the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department of Tinsukia district was not doing post-mortems of the animals especially livestock that perished after the blowout.
“No post-mortems [on animals] are being done, as the village communities find it to be lengthy process,” stated Yadava in his report. He added that veterinary officers would not examine the dead animals unless the local police are informed.
A word of caution
As opposed to the studies furnished by OIL showing that the ecosystem has healed, Supreme Court committee has taken a precautionary approach while assessing the damage caused by the contamination. “Not all effects of contaminants or damage to the ecosystem processes are observable within a short time period,” the Committee remarked.
Since last one year, the residents of Baghjan and surrounding villages have been observing ‘Black Day’ on May 27, marking the day of the blowout. Last week, on Friday, 50-odd residents gathered outside the office of Milan Jyoti Sangha, a local organization from Baghjan, wore black bands on their heads and hoisted a black flag. In the background, BGN 3, an oil well loudly belched as one of the petitioners, Manoj Hazarika apprised the residents on the developments in the Supreme Court case. “People are tired. They want their prayers to be heard by the court and the petitioners are under immense pressure by the larger village communities,” said Hazarika.
On the opposite end of Baghjan, residents of Natun Rongagora petitioning before the Supreme Court want a closure. “This is not just a struggle for Baghjan or Natun Rongagora but for all those oil and gas bearing areas in the country that are over human habitation. Despite being so close to the blowout site and facing a nightmare for months, losing our paddy, tea and betel nut, our residents received only Rs 75000,” said Niranta Gohain, an environmentalist and a resident of Natun Rongagara, who also petitioned before the Supreme Court, which will hear the matter next on August 2, 2022.
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