Guwahati: Three years after the devastating blowout from an oil rig operated by Oil India Limited (OIL) in Baghjan village of Tinsukia, a survey has indicated that the residents are facing an acute health crisis and trauma.

The survey conducted by Foundation of Social Transformation – Enabling Northeast India, a non-profit based out of Guwahati, has revealed that all the 612 families in the village have contracted various illnesses over the last three years.

According to Ritupan Gogoi, the executive director of Foundation of Social Transformation – Enabling Northeast India, the survey was conducted as a part of an engagement with the community impacted by the blowout. “This was an effort to understand the impact of an environmental disaster on the people. These findings will be useful for us to create awareness amongst the vulnerable communities of the state,” Gogoi told EastMojo.

Also Read | OIL’s entire Baghjan oil field illegal: National Green Tribunal

The team studied both mental and physical health of the victims with a separate section on local women’s health.

The findings are shocking.

Till the blowout incident on May 27, 2020, Baghjan residents told the surveyors that diseases were rare among the community. “Many diseases or health problems that rarely occurred earlier have now become chronic,” the survey findings state. The residents also told surveyors that they have not been able to overcome the trauma of the incident.

“The fear of recurrence of such incidents persists amongst the villagers, impacting their everyday life and relationships, their zeal and enthusiasm for work and their sense of belongingness to the place,” the surveyors noted in their findings.

Baghjan residents observe Black Day on May 27 remembering the blowout three years ago from an oil rig operated by Oil India Limited in Tinsukia district on Assam. 

Curiously, according to the residents, there have been no surveys to look at the long-term impacts of the pollution caused by the blowout and the oil fire that lasted 159 days.

According to Amrita Pritam Gogoi, a faculty member of the political science department of Dibrugarh University, who led the survey in February 2023, the need for an assessment of the health was felt during a workshop held in Baghjan on December 15, 2022.

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

The workshop titled ‘Sustainable Future’ was organised by North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC), Centre for Ecology, Environment, and Sustainable Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, and Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University.

During the workshop, a resident shared that her 10-year-old son developed a lung infection while escaping a torrent of condensates emanating uncontrollably from the oil rig experiencing the blowout.

“Once she shared her ordeal, other residents poured in stating there might be an increase in cancer cases after the blowout incident. The residents further told us they have been demanding a health survey but the Tinsukia district administration has not taken any step on this front,” Gogoi told EastMojo.

After the blowout incident, according to OIL, doctors and other medical staff from an OIL-run hospital reached out to the victims in the relief camps spread across Doomdooma and Tinsukia sub-division.

OIL claimed people were given free treatment and medicines for any kind of health condition persisting during that period and critical cases were referred to OIL-run hospital in Duliajan.

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

Locals, however, allege that despite recommendations by the National Green Tribunal’s committee headed by a former Gauhati High Court judge, B.P. Katakey, and organisations such as Wildlife Institute of India, there has been no effort to long term impacts of the blowout on human health and the larger ecosystem.

Dark waters

The impact on the ecosystem, especially on water bodies and air quality, as the survey findings indicate, might have led to a community health crisis. During the survey, residents presented the surveyors with foul smelling dark coloured water. “To cope with the situation residents have, within their limited resources, developed different techniques to make it edible. For instance, one respondent explained that they use the water on the second day of fetching it, as this allowed the sediment to settle at the bottom,” the surveyors noted in their findings.

The team also noted poor air quality during the survey period in February with residents showing an air quality index at 375 indicating hazardous air in and around Baghjan. Residents blame the new rigs coming near the blowout site for poor air quality in the region even as long-term monitoring of air quality remains a far cry.

Also Read | OIL officials barred from investigating Assam’s Baghjan blowout: SC

Around 786 residents from 612 households complained of headaches that would persist for several days at a stretch. The survey notes that the school going children are the worst sufferers which has impacted their studies. Due to poor medical facilities, most people rely on over-the-counter painkillers for temporary relief. The surveyors found that many residents ascribe the constant and loud noise from the oil rig experiencing the blowout for 159 days in 2020 as a factor contributing to the pain.

Baghjan’s 474 residents have vision problems while 294 persons reported difficulty in hearing.  Around 315 also reported respiratory issues which has resulted in fatigue, diminishing their productivity in their daily activities. Several women told the surveyors about possible hormonal imbalances and irregular menstrual cycles that they experienced after the blowout. “The women who were pregnant at the time of the incident experienced stomach ache and vomiting,” noted the study.

Gastrointestinal issues characterised by stomach aches and digestion problems have affected 571 persons which the villagers believe is due to the contaminated water they have been using. Skin infections, hyperpigmentation such as dark patches, reddening and darkening of skin, blisters and rashes have become common affecting 525 persons in Baghjan alone where the study was conducted.

Also Read | Expert panel blames OIL for Baghjan disaster; exposes series of lapses

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“Most respondents never failed to remind us that the condensate droplets, during the blow-out, fell on them like rain. This, they feel, has severely affected their physical health. They claimed it to be the cause of the skin problems that are now on the rise,” the surveyors noted.

The surveyors also looked at the mental health of the Baghjan residents and found telltale signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The survey narrates the experiences of several persons talking about their inability to get a good night’s sleep in the last three years since the incident, living in constant fear of another blowout like incident with new oil rigs coming up in the vicinity of their village.

While many expressed unwillingness to work in their farms and being irritable towards their loved ones, several senior citizens participating in the survey have not been able to internally process the transformation of their landscape due to the blowout.

Also Read | Baghjan disaster due to gross disregard for safety: Parl. panel

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