Assam: Widespread Anger Against Company, Govt After Two Die in Oil Field Fire

Local activists say the same outrage should have been triggered by the deaths of five villagers allegedly because of the leak at the Baghjan gas well site.

Guwahati: The death of two Oil India Limited (OIL) employees as a result of a blowout at the Baghjan gas well site on June 9 (Tuesday) has sparked outrage across Assam. Most of the anger is aimed at OIL, for its alleged failure to curb a 14-day leak, resulting in the uncontrollable gush of natural gas. Local activists here say the same attention and outrage should have been expressed when five villagers near the site allegedly lost their lives on account of the gas leak in the first week of June.

Two OIL employees, working as assistant operators at the company’s fire service department, died at blazing gas well site located in Tinsukia district. The Baghjan gas well has been wrapped in flames for more than 24 hours now, since the blowout on June 9. Durlov Gogoi, a former footballer, and Tikheswar Gohain had both been missing since the blowout and their bodies were discovered on Wednesday.

Bodies of the two OIL employees being recovered in Tinsukia, as the fire rages in the background. Photo: PTI

According to a report published by the Assamese daily Asomiya Pratidin, on June 5 five people from a village named Natun Gaon, near the gas well site, allegedly succumbed to the toxic gas-induced poison. The report said that the local public blamed the gas leak for the deaths. The report said that according to the locals, Petu Kishan died on June 1, Bumoni Dutta and Janmoni Sonowal on June 3, and Asom Gohain and Prabin Dutta on June 4.

Soneswar Narah of the Jeepal Krishak Sramik Samiti, a Golaghat-based peasants’ rights body who has been raising his voice against a seismic survey conducted by OIL in some pockets in upper Assam for a few years now, told The Wire that the five from the village near Baghjan were poor, and had no way to express their suffering. This is why, he said, there was no widespread outrage against their deaths.

“It is quite unfortunate that the two OIL employees had to lose their lives just because of a complete failure from the government and OIL. But at the same time, we the people and the media should not overlook the deaths of the five people from the village. These were poor people who lived in hardship. Now there is outrage and attention is being given because two OIL employees died in the gas leak. Equal importance should be given to all and not just OIL employees. Will families of the villagers who died receive any compensation?” asked Narah.

Mukut Deka of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) told The Wire that his organisation will raise the issue in the next few days.

“It is important that the five people who died aren’t forgotten. There should be collective outrage against the five deaths. KMSS members will try to meet their families, and we will create awareness on what could be done for them. Failure and negligence led to the death of the two OIL employees, and to environmental destruction and homelessness for close to 2,000 people.”

On Wednesday (June 10), Time8, an Assam-based news portal, reported that the Petroleum and Gas Workers’ Federation of India alleged that the Centre’s introduction of the Open Acreage Licensing Policy (OALP) will lead to more accidents like the Baghjan oil well blowout in the days to come.

Federation general secretary Nagen Chutia said, “The most defective clause of this policy is that bidders need not have any prior experience in oil exploration activities. Hence, it (OALP) opens the path for incompetent enterprises to execute oil exploration that causes incidents like the Baghjan blowout.”

A press release by OIL on Wednesday said, “Immediate compensation is being disbursed to the families of two OIL employees, who sacrificed their lives. CMD had a detailed discussion with Shri Chandra Mohan Patowary Minister of Industries & Commerce, Assam at Tinsukia in the presence of Shri Bhaskar Pegu, Deputy Commissioner, Tinsukia, and appraised the Hon’ble Minister of the status of the blowout and actions initiated by OIL.”