Baghjan oil well fire
An estimated loss of Rs 25,000 crore and a biodiversity loss of 55 per cent was reportedly caused by the oil blowout in June 2020. File photo Credit: EastMojo image

Guwahati: With Assam’s Tinsukia Police arresting three villagers from Baghjan, including the village Gaon Burha’s son for protesting against Oil India Limited last week, the issue of compensating the Baghjan blowout victims is far from over. On Saturday morning, after a violent confrontation between Tinsukia police and the locals, the district administration banned assembly of people in Baghjan village under section 144 CrPC for a day. 

The incident took place on Saturday morning after 50-odd residents blocked access of the Oil India Limited (OIL) personnel and vehicles to the disaster site, situated next to the Maguri Motapung Beel, an internationally renowned bird habitat next to Dibru Saikhowa National Park. In the stand-off, several villagers and policemen were injured, while police picked up three persons from the spot. 

Manoj Hazarika, son of Rajani Hazarika, Baghjan Gaon burha (village headman) was arrested along with Prakash Hazarika and Deep Saikia on Saturday.

“We have filed cases under various sections, which include disruption of government officials, causing unrest and unlawful assembly against 26 persons, of which three have been arrested,” a police official from Baghjan Police Station told EastMojo

While OIL was trying to move out materials from its now-closed Baghjan oil well, locals resisted it, maintaining that they would allow the site to be cleared only after their full compensation amount was paid by the PSU.

Assam police used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to disperse the protestors on Saturday.

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

“Left with no choice,” a senior police official told EastMojo on Saturday, “We were forced to use tear gas, wield batons and rubber bullets to disperse the protestors.”

At least 18 people were injured in the police action.

Where is the closure?

Following the incident, Moran Chhatra Sanstha, a students’ organization representing concerns of Moran community, majority of which lives in and around Baghjan, demanded OIL to immediately shift its operations out of Baghjan and adjoining areas around Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

“We have called for 24 hour blockade against all the operations conducted by OIL in the region while also demanding OIL to publish the details of the all the funds released under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR),” Naba Moran, president of Moran Chhatra Sanstha, said in a statement on Sunday.  

Considered as one of the worst oil disasters in India, the Baghjan oilwell fire raged for 110 days. File Photo Credit: EastMojo image

Hemanta Moran, an advisor for Milanjyoti Sangha, a local organization from Baghjan representing the blowout victims, said that several women were injured during the stand-off.

“Three persons were critically injured who had to be rushed to Tinsukia Civil Hospital. Many of our people were shot with rubber bullets,” Moran told EastMojo.

He added that the blockade was not supported by Milanjyoti Sangha. “The gathering of the villagers was spontaneous. We are already in talks with the District administration with our demands. We have asked for the details of the assessment done to compensate 612 persons from our village and clearing the rent that was promised to land owners for using their property to keep equipment,” said Moran. 

Moran told EastMojo that OIL entered into an arrangement with two residents of Baghjan, whose property was damaged during the devastating oil fire of June 9, 2020. OIL had cleared only half of the rent for keeping their machinery and equipment in the area, residents said.

“The district administration could have informed us about this. OIL personnel suddenly showed up with a large posse of policemen to take away the machinery without settling the dues and angered the residents even more,” added Moran.  

Baghjan villagers observed ‘Black Day’ on May 27, 2021, to mark one year of the OIL disaster. File photo

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

For Baghjan residents, the blowout from OIL operated BGN 5 rig on May 27, 2020 followed by a devastating fire on June 9, 2020, during the peak of the first wave of COVID 19 pandemic was a huge blow to the village economy. Moran and others from the organization made several trips to the Deputy Commissioner’s office, even as Assam Government changed the head of the administration thrice in last one year since the blowout.

“The oil well fire lasted for five months, destroying hectares of agricultural land and our property. Now our people are asking the basis on which they were given interim compensation. We had our last meeting with the DC on June 4, in which he promised to give us the details of assessment as prepared by the administration in ten days. We are approaching end of July. People want closure,” Moran added.

Radius of grievances

Bhagiroth Gowala, a community leader representing Adivasi tea workers and fishing communities, did not come out for Saturday’s protest. The District Administration, Gowala claims, promised him in a meeting that around 900–odd families, who did not receive any compensation, will be reassessed and their claims duly processed.

Marking one year of the disaster in May, a resident of Natun Rongagora village demands final compensation for the losses caused by the Baghjan blowout. File photo

“We had organized a similar blockade against OIL, preventing them from accessing one of their Early Production Storage (EPS), where they store crude oil from the rigs. They broke the protest and agreed to hear our grievances, we promised them that we will not organize any protest. They even said that the radius of the affected area could be increased to 5 km from blowout site,” Gowala told EastMojo. The leader was told that by August, they will hear from the administration on the surveys that have been conducted in the past. 

For residents of Natun Rongagora, situated on the opposite end of Maguri Motapung Beel, facing the controversial BGN 5, the affected persons add up to 600-odd families.

“We have written letters to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma stating that despite conducting surveys and assessing the damage, Natun Rongagora and surrounding villages facing the BGN 5 have not been brought under the three categories based on which compensation was paid to some families in Baghjan,” Niranta Gohain, a resident of Natun Rongagora and environmental activist told EastMojo

On August 6, 2020, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) while hearing a slew of petitions by Kolkata-based activist Bonani Kakkar, Tinsukia-based Wildlife and Environment Conservation Organization (WECO), a non-profit and two Assam activists, Samudrajit Gohain and Soneswar Narah created three categories to compensate the victims of the blowout, which was later revised to two categories to claim damages. 

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

Incidentally, the case took a U-turn on February 19 this year, with NGT Judge Adarsh Kumar Goel ruling that “a substantial number of compensation claims” had been addressed by the district administration and disposed the case. The NGT verdict also called for a committee in which OIL’s Managing Director was tasked with determining the damages and compensation of the blowout along with other agencies.

On July 1, after Kakkar moved to Supreme Court challenging OIL’s inclusion in a committee to assess the compensation and damage that may have been caused by the organisation itself, the Apex court stayed the February 19 order of NGT. 

Other than the cost to environment and biodiversity, the blowout, massive natural gas leak and subsequent fire at Baghjan last year had resulted in three deaths. File photo Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa

No reassessment

Deputy Commissioner of Tinsukia Narsinh Sambhaji Pawar, however, maintained that Supreme Court order of July 1 stayed on the committee, which would have included OIL’s Managing Director.

“Rs 102 crore has been paid to 612 families. Out of these, 12 families whose houses were completely destroyed received Rs 25 lakh. They were put up in relief camps and some of them also received house rent ranging between Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Now they are demanding that this money is not sufficient. But now we can’t have reassessment because earlier whatever report was submitted by the district administration, that has been given and NGT has also endorsed it. It said that compensation issue has been substantially covered. If anybody is aggrieved then they can go to the higher courts,” Pawar told EastMojo.

Pawar said that he has been meeting various representatives from Baghjan, Dighaltarang and Barekuri, the Assam villages that may have been impacted by the blowout.

“I had a series of meetings with them. It was decided not to create any law and order situation, to not take law into their hands. Whatever activity needs to be carried out by OIL, it should be allowed. Then only they will get some fund for the upliftment of the area,” said Pawar. 

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

On being asked about the recent Supreme Court order, the Deputy Commissioner said that the order pertains to the constitution of the committees by NGT.

“NGT constituted five committees. There was one committee to assess the ecological damage under the chairmanship of Chief Secretary of Assam. There was a provision of one member to be taken from Oil India. So Supreme Court said that one who is culprit cannot be a part of the team,” Pawar said. 

The official said that as of now it will take one and a half to two months to complete the digitization of the assessment done by the Tinsukia District Administration last year, which he is verifying himself.

A fire tender was damaged during the protests and police action on Saturday. File photo

“We have contacted the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) in Hyderabad to determine the extent of the damage using satellite imagery,” Pawar informed. He added that the an area of 1.5 to 3-km radius may have been impacted by the blowout following the assessments carried by district administration, although in some places it may go as far as four kilometers from the blowout site.

“We are going to submit digitized assessment to the government based on which they will decide on any further compensation,” Pawar said.  

Regarding compensation, OIL had earlier said that it deposited the money estimated by the Tinsukia district administration and the National Green Tribunal after surveying 2,756 families.

The blowout, massive natural gas leak and subsequent fire at Baghjan last year had resulted in three deaths. An estimated loss of Rs 25,000 crore and a biodiversity loss of 55 per cent was reportedly caused by the blowout, according to an inquiry report prepared by Assam’s Forest Department.

Considered as one of the worst oil disasters in India, the fire raged for 110 days with OIL bringing equipment from Canada and a crew of experts from Singapore to kill the oil well fire. The disaster displaced close to 9,000 people who were holed up inside relief camps for at least two months.

Also Read | ‘Black day’ in Baghjan to mark one year since OIL disaster

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