The Supreme Court of India has asked the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to resolve the compensation issue of the Baghjan victims in two months on Monday. The apex court has also entrusted NGT to hear the matters related to restoration of the ecology.

After nearly a two-year wait, the residents of Baghjan and Natun Rongagora villages in Tinsukia are hopeful. These villages had approached the Supreme Court of India in October 2021 seeking compensation for the devastation caused by the Baghjan blowout – India’s longest running oil fire from a rig operated by Oil India Limited – a government owned oil company. Victims from both the Assam villages filed an intervention application in the Supreme Court of India stating the Oil India Limited (OIL) and Tinsukia District Administration failed to address the compensation issues of the locals who lost their homesteads and livelihood to the fire.

Fire at the OIL gas well at Baghjan. File photo Credit: EastMojo Image

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

According to the legal counsel of affected village residents, Vikram Rajkhowa, the Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud ordered that compensation issues should be heard by the NGT expeditiously.

“Earlier there was no clarity over the timeframe for the resolution of the compensation issues. The order has paved way for any affected persons to reach out to the NGT for final compensation, which will be adjudicated over the next two months and expedited. Secondly, the victims seeking interim compensation can also approach the Supreme Court-appointed committee led by former justice B.P. Katakey. NGT will finally adjudicate over the compensation claims,” Rajkhowa told EastMojo.

Also Read | Assam: Year after Baghjan blowout disaster, villagers’ woes far from over

Sigh of relief

Manoj Hazarika, a resident of Baghjan village and one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case, told EastMojo that they are satisfied with the apex court’s order.

“The Supreme Court ordered NGT to expedite the process of compensation as per the recommendations of the expert committee it constituted earlier to resolve the compensation issues in two months. Some people had received interim compensation but the process remained incomplete for more than two years since we lost our homes and farms to the blowout,” Hazarika said.

Natun Rongagora residents breathed a sigh of relief as they had been struggling to include their village under the zone of impact from the blowout.

Baghjan oil well blowout
Surrounding landscape burnt from the explosion of the Baghjan oil well blowout in Assam’s Tinsukia district, along with the resulting oil spill. File photo Credit: Sachin Bharali

“Despite several representations, our compensation issue was hanging for the last two and a half years. Finally this order has drawn a timeframe for adequate compensation,” said Niranta Gohain, a petitioner who approached Supreme Court along with Baghjan residents.

Also Read | Assam: Baghjan residents reach SC demanding ‘ecological justice’

It was in April 2021 when Kolkata-based environmentalist Bonani Kakkar approached the Supreme Court after the NGT formed committees to investigate the blowout and restore the impacted ecosystem next to Dibru Saikhowa National Park – world’s largest riverine national park. Kakkar challenged the composition of one of the committees after NGT appointed an OIL executive as a member of a committee on restoration. Kakkar held OIL as a defaulter as it was responsible for the blowout. The Supreme Court then stayed the formation of the NGT-appointed committees and re-appointed former judge B.P. Katakey.

On Monday, Supreme Court ordered that the findings and recommendations of Katakey committee it had appointed earlier will be adjudicated by the NGT. The Katakey committee held OIL responsible for the blowout and recommended that ₹1196 crore be deposited with the Assam Government for rehabilitation of the affected persons and restoration of the damages caused to the local ecology.

Also Read | No more Baghjans: Assam village boycotts public hearing on oil wells

During the hearing, Chief Justice Chandrachud also held that OIL can present its position before the NGT. According to the OIL, ₹147.92 crore had been spent on relief and rehabilitation of the families. Around 612 families in Baghjan received interim compensation, of which only 12 residents were paid ₹ 25 lakh each.

The affected villagers contested OIL’s relief and rehabilitation stating that impacts of the oil fire and spill were far greater than OIL estimated. Since the blowout, studies by autonomous as well as government bodies showed increased contamination and losses to the habitat shared by humans and wildlife. The blowout which took around six months to contain had displaced close to 11000 persons during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Also Read | Two years after Baghjan oilfield disaster, alarming health concerns

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