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Hearing a petition on the Baghjan case, the Supreme Court on Monday indicated that it may bring Justice (Retired) B.P. Katakey back to assess the damage caused by a blowout and a fire next to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Upper Assam last year in May and suggested restoration of the ecological habitat. 

Katakey was earlier appointed by the National Green Tribunal to investigate the blowout in an oil well operated by Oil India Limited (OIL), a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) following which the former judge found several violations by OIL in securing and operating oil wells in Baghjan area of Tinsukia district in Assam. 

On April 21, Bonani Kakkar, a Kolkata-based environmentalist approached the Apex court citing gross errors in the National Green Tribunal’s judgement of February 19, 2021. Kakkar petitioned before the court challenging NGT’s decision to appoint OIL’s Managing Director as a part of a six-member committee looking at the cause and impact of the blowout. Senior Supreme Court Counsel, Siddharth Mitra, representing Kakkar disputed the proposed committee citing reports and findings of Justice Katakey which indicated OIL did not seek requisite Air and Water clearances, permissions to establish or operate drills in the Baghjan gas field. Incidentally, Justice Katakey who had sought more time before the NGT to complete the investigation of the blowout by March 2021 was asked by the NGT bench led by Justice A.K. Goel to discontinue the investigation and submit all the findings to the committees proposed by NGT. 

Also Read | Assam: Year after Baghjan blowout disaster, villagers’ woes far from over

Dreadful penny

Earlier on July 1, Supreme Court judges, D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah ruled in favour of Kakkar and put a stay on the NGT order of February 21 which proposed the three different committees, one of which was to be led by the Managing Director of OIL. On Monday, Mitra stated that the assessment of the damage and restoration work was thwarted by OIL earlier in the NGT when Rs 25 crore was fixed as an initial amount to be paid for the restoration work of the ecological habitat impacted by the blowout. “Senior Counsel Mukul Rohtagi indicated before the NGT that not a single penny will be paid for the restoration work,” Mitra told the Apex Court. 

Justice Chandrachud and Shah, on Monday, reiterated that the OIL may not be made a part of any committee to assess the damage or the restoration of the ecological habitat. Senior Counsel, Aman Lekhi, representing OIL defended PSU’s inclusion in the committee stating that the work is “purely empirical”. “It is not as if any adjudication is going to be done or the establishment of any rights. This is an enquiry for the finalization of a restoration plan and as far as liability of the restoration plan is concerned, that is falling squarely on OIL,” Lekhi told the court.

Chief Justice Chandrachud, however, countered Lekhi citing an example of the chemical spill by a company. “Can the industry liable for the damage decide on the compensation that is to be paid?” Chandrachud asked Lekhi. Later, the judges stated OIL’s position can be heard by the committee. On the other hand, Mitra submitted a list of names that is likely to be vetted by the Additional Solicitor General of India, K.M. Nataraj. 

While the Supreme Court is likely to finalize the committee which will be monitoring the assessment and restoration of the affected ecosystem in Baghjan by Thursday, the judges would likely to appoint a nodal officer from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to coordinate the investigation. 

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

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