Guwahati: It has been a year since oil and gas rig owned by Oil India Limited, a Public sector undertaking of government of India, experienced a blow out at Baghjan village in Tinsukia district, which was followed by a devastating fire, impacting lives and livelihoods with pollution reaching Dibru Saikhowa National Park. On the other hand, dissatisfied with the outcome of a National Green Tribunal trial against OIL for its role in the disaster, a Kolkata-based environmental non-profit has knocked the doors of the Supreme Court of India.
On Thursday morning at 10: 30 AM, the precise time of the blowout that took place in 2020, people from the village gathered in a school compound while maintaining COVID 19 protocols, hoisted a flag deeming the date – May 27 – as a ‘black day’. By Thursday evening, residents of neighbouring Natun Rongagora and Motapung villages lit up candles and lamps in their courtyards to remember the day.
During the peak of COVID-19’s first wave in 2020, a blowout took place in the OIL’s Baghjan 5 well on May 27, leading to an uncontrolled flow of crude oil and condensates from drill which drained to the Maguri-Motapung Beel or a wetland, killing at least one endangered river dolphin and several fish. As condensates spilled and covered an area close to one square kilometer, the densely populated part of Baghjan was evacuated and taken to relief camps. On June 9, the rig caught fire, in which two firefighters from OIL died. Along with them, several small animals and birds perished while close to 50 houses were gutted with standing tea crops, vegetable gardens and betel nut trees. 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. During the operation, an engineer with OIL also died while a resident of Baghjan, depressed over the losses he faced, killed himself. The disaster displaced close to 9,000 people who were holed up inside relief camps for at least two months.
Fire after fires
In both Baghjan and neighbouring Natungaon, close to 1,620 families impacted by the disaster have stated that they are yet to receive final compensation from OIL. According to a source from OIL, the discussions are on with the Tinsukia District Administration with regards to the demands raised by the aggrieved persons.
“However, it is up to the Tinsukia District Administration to complete the survey and assessment of the damages. OIL has spent close Rs 150 crore with regards to the compensation,” the source told Eastmojo.
Ritu Chandra Moran, whose house was the first one in the village to catch fire after the blowout on June 9, has blocked the equipment belonging to OIL. His cousin, Hemanta Moran, a school teacher speaking on his behalf to Eastmojo, said OIL agreed to pay a rent for generators and other equipment, which was stationed in his compound for close to 110 days till the blowout was controlled.
“Unfortunately, after the first three months, OIL extended the rent agreement and they did not pay remainder of the rent,” Moran said. “Recently they had a meeting him in which it was decided that they would pay the entire some of money that was owed to him, yet there is no action in this regard,” he added.
The residents of Baghjan have been asking OIL to start the cleanup of the blowout site. “The debris continues to rot. Various kinds of chemicals are leaching on to Maguri Motapung Beel which is part of the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park,” added Moran, who is closely associated with the citizen’s groups in talks with the District administration and OIL.
“We understand that the compensation issues will be dealt by the district administration and now with COVID-19’s second wave and scant attendance in the offices, it will be difficult to process it. We have even avoiding protesting against it. But the site cleanup is OIL’s responsibility, which is not being done yet,” Moran added.
Towards the northern part of Baghjan village, 971 families have been allegedly left out from the surveys, even after falling inside the impact zone. Bhagiroth Gowala, a community leader representing a section of Adivasis and Kaiborta, the scheduled caste fishing community, said the people in the area waited patiently till December 2020 – a month after the oil fire was doused.
“Then we started blocking the Early Production Storage (EPS) at Dighaltarang. There have been three tripartite discussions with OIL, Tinsukia District administration represented by Doomdooma circle officer and local organizations under the umbrella of Baghjan Dighaltarang Development Society, a trust formed by various marginalized communities in the area. We were promised that compensation process for 971 families would start after the elections. Now we feel we just kept running around the circle,” Gowala told Eastmojo.
According to the Circle Officer of Doomdooma, Nandita Roy Gohain, damage assessment surveys have already been done by various departments. “We are in the process of finalizing the reports following the consultations with the people of the area,” she said.
“We suspect that some outsiders have been included in these surveys. We want the circle officer to include people from Karuwa Basti, Nagbangshi Basti, Itabhata Basti, Bengali Chuk, Kachoni Pathar, Dighaltarang Bengali Basti and Gahori Basti,” said Gowala.
For residents of Natun Rongagora, which is less than 2 kilometres from the blowout site, 650 residents received interim compensation of Rs 25,000. “Residents here should have received the final compensation as per the categories proposed by Justice B.P Katakey committee appointed by NGT. We will not rest until we are paid full compensation for what we lost,” said Niranta Gohain, an environmentalist and a resident of Natun Rongagora.
Curiously, National Green Tribunal’s Principal bench, which was hearing the matter for close to six months in a ruling, disposed off the matter after dissolving Justice (Retired) B.P. Katakey committee on February 19, 2021. Katakey had sought an extension of the committee’s tenure till March 31. NGT bench ordered Katakey to submit his investigation which had listed several violations by OIL and Gujarat-based contractor, John Energy to three new committees. NGT ended up making Managing Director of OIL as a part of one of the committees to look at the impact and propose remediation for the disaster.
Bonani Kakkar, a Kolkata-based environmentalist who filed the petition in NGT against OIL citing damage to the wildlife and livelihoods of the people, moved to the Supreme Court on April 21. “The [NGT] tribunal has grossly erred in directing that the Managing Director of OIL shall be a part of the ten member committee formed for assessing the damage to the environment and carrying out remedial restoration plan of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung Wetland. The same is in the face of the well-established judicial principle that one cannot be the judge in their own cause, in as much as the single handed culpability of OIL in the gas leak and resultant environmental disaster is established and undisputed,” she stated in a petition before the Supreme Court. The environmentalist further contended that NGT may have downplayed the urgency which is faced by the National Park and the people affected by the disaster and placed the matter of restoration in the entirely on the hands of committees with no scope of monitoring them.
Incidentally, several committees had been appointed earlier by Assam government to look into the matter. According to Niranta Gohain, the environmentalist from the region, none of those reports are available in public domain apart from Wildlife Institute of India’s report, which shows largescale contamination in the affected region.
As the residents remember the sacrifices of two fire fighters from OIL and deaths of dolphin, several animals and birds, they feel left out by OIL. “It looks like no one learnt a lesson. New oil wells are still coming up next to the Maguri Motapung wetland. We do not know what’s next,” said Moran.