OIL’s well number 5 at Baghjan witnessed a blowout or uncontrolled flow of natural gas on May 27 Credit: File image

Guwahati: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) hearing the Baghjan blowout and fire case near Dibru Saikhowa National Park at Tinsukia district of Assam last year have called for three new committees to investigate the cause of the incident and restore the ecological habitat.

Curiously, Oil India Limited (OIL), which was considered liable for the incident at Baghjan by the Tribunal, has also been included in one of three committees by the Tribunal that would assess the damage and work on the restoration of ecologically sensitive habitats affected by the blowout followed by a fire.

According to an order of the Principal Bench of NGT headed by Justice Adarsh Goel on Friday, further studies are required for the assessment of damage to the environment and restoration measures by an inter-disciplinary committee. The order notes that the issues related to compensation “stands sorted out substantially”. “The remaining aspects of remedying the causes leading to the incident and statutory compliance will require further consideration by the statutory and departmental authorities in the first instance for which propose joint committees,” the order stated.

While on the issue of accountability for the failure of safety protocols, the Panel led by Justice Goel stated that OIL cannot disown its responsibility “by shifting blame on the contractor, the Panel appointed OIL’s Managing Director as the member of committee to look into extent of damage and restoration of the affected areas.”

OIL’s Managing Director will be part of a ten-member committee to be headed by the Chief Secretary of Assam. The Panel further added that OIL will also have to deposit an amount for the budgetary allocation of the restoration work based on this committee’s findings.

The Tribunal has proposed a ten-member committee to investigate the accountability of OIL or other stakeholders while an eight-member committee would look into the issue of non-compliance with the statutory norms. The committees have been asked by the tribunal to hold their first meetings within two weeks. Additionally, all the committees are free to co-opt an expert member from any institution, as per the order.

The takeover

Previously, the NGT had appointed Ret. Justice B.P. Katakey to lead an eight-committee of experts to investigate the Baghjan blowout. The committee submitted at least three preliminary reports to the tribunal since August 2020.

While appreciating Justice Katakey’s contribution, the Tribunal has asked the new committee assessing the damage with OIL’s Managing Director as its member to take over the available record and the data from the Justice Katakey committee within six months.

Expressing dissatisfaction with the Tribunal’s order, lead petitioner, Bonani Kakkar in the case said that there is a clear conflict of interest in taking OIL as a part of a committee to assess the damage. “We made an interim application to the court seeking an extension of Justice B.P. Katakey’s tenure till March 31, 2020, as most experts felt they need more time to complete their assessment. We were waiting for the final report. However, now OIL has been made an investigator in the case when the Tribunal itself agreed that OIL bears the responsibility of the blowout,” said Kakkar.

NGT’s order has not gone down very well with the Baghjan residents. Milanjyoti Yuva Sangha, the organization which representing people of Baghjan village has threatened to resume protests from Saturday onwards. “Most people in Baghjan are not satisfied with NGT’s order. Trusting the Tribunal to bring them justice, the residents of Baghjan have not been protesting or installing roadblocks,” said Hemanta Moran, the advisor of Milan Jyoti Sangha. He further added that the residents want an answer as to how compensation was determined based on their assessment. “Some people lost 15 bighas of their land and their dwellings, some lost one bigha. Interim compensation for these losses were estimated at ₹ 15 to ₹ 25. What kind of a rationale was that?” asked Moran.

According to Niranta Gohain, a local environmental activist and a resident of Natungaon facing Baghjan 5, the oil rig where the incident occurred, the community is not satisfied with the judgement delivered by NGT on February 19. Justice Katakey led committee had been making an appropriate assessment and investigated the issue properly. “We were shocked that NGT did not extend time to the Katakey committee and ruled on OIL’s favour. Apart from letting the affected persons who did not get any compensation to approach any court, NGT did not say anything on their behalf. Instead NGT has created new committees consisting of OIL’s MD and officials from the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. We plan to appeal against this order in the Supreme Court,” said Gohain.

The blowout on May 27 followed by a fire on June 9 displaced 1,610 families from around Baghjan village in Tinsukia while polluting parts of Maguri-Motapung wetland, a part of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park’s Eco-sensitive zone with oil condensates. Several violations of environmental laws by OIL had been pointed by the committee led by Justice Katakey even as OIL has spent close to Rs 150 crore in rehabilitation and restoration of the affected area in the Tinsukia district.

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