The Supreme Court on Thursday reconstituted a committee formed by National Green Tribunal in February on the Baghjan blowout case bringing back former Gauhati High Court judge, B.P. Katakey as the committee’s chairperson. Despite several attempts by Oil India Limited (OIL) to oppose Justice Katakey’s re-appointment, an apex court bench constituted a five-member committee that will assess the impact of the Baghjan disaster on Dibru Saikhowa National Park and surrounding areas in the Tinsukia district of Assam and suggest restorative measures. 

On July 1, a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah stayed an order passed by the National Green Tribunal on February 19, 2021, in which OIL’s Managing Director was included in a committee to be led by Chief Secretary of Assam. Earlier, NGT had appointed a former Gauhati High Court judge, B.P. Katakey led the investigation of the devastating blowout followed by a fire from an oil rig controlled by OIL on May 27 and June 9 in 2020 in Baghjan village near Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

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

With a series of reports, Katakey revealed that OIL did not have requisite clearances to operate the rig that experienced the blowout as well as others, which several acts related to Air and Water laws were stood violated. NGT, on February 19, however, directed Katakey to stop all the investigation and pass on all the materials to the three committees it constituted – one of which would have OIL’s MD in it. 

Natural justice

Dissatisfied with the order, Kolkata-based environmental activist Bonani Kakkar approached the apex court seeking the removal of OIL from a committee that would assess the blowout caused by OIL itself and suggest restorative steps. Aman Lekhi, the legal counsel of OIL, invoking principles of natural justice opposed the re-appointment of Justice Katakey citing that his client was already involved in the restoration efforts.

Lekhi further questioned Justice Katakey committee for basing his earlier reports to NGT on secondary data without any ground visit. The legal counsels, Siddharth Mitra and Shruti Agarwal, representing Kakkar, the environmentalist, told the court that due to COVID 19 situation and the floods all the members of the committee could not visit Baghjan. “No funds were allocated to the Katakey committee. The members visited Baghjan on their own expense,” Agarwal told the court.

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

Earlier, Mitra had submitted before the court that OIL opposed the creation of a fund for restoration as well as for the assessment of the damages. Incidentally, OIL’s legal counsel stated to the court that OIL had spent Rs 2 crore in their habitat restoration effort. 

The bench comprising of justices, D.Y. Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and Hima Kohli while reconstituting the committee told Lekhi that “OIL cannot have a role to play in who should be in the committee”. In an earlier hearing on August 23, Chandrachud and Shah, tasked the Additional Solicitor General of India, K.M. Nataraj representing the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to vet the names suggested by Kakkar’s counsel.

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

Nataraj told the court that instead of a ten-member committee, a small committee should be appointed to carry out a quick assessment and suggest remedial measures. The Supreme Court agreed to the suggestion and reconstituted the committee. 

The new committee would be led by chairperson, former judge Katakey 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. While Dang was recommended by MoEFCC, the rest were recommended by the petitioners.

The committee will file an interim report in less than one month with recommendations for the funds to be allocated for restoration, while in three months the committee will submit the report. 

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