After Big Blowout, Assam's Baghjan Oil Field Catches Fire

Over 2,000 people living around the field have been moved to relief camps.

Guwahati: On May 27, oil and natural gas began to gush out uncontrollably from the Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district in an event known in industry parlance as a blowout. But even as Oil India Limited (OIL) officials and engineers scrambled to contain the leak, a fire broke out on Tuesday afternoon, birthing a towering inferno at the site.

The Baghjan field is located less than a kilometre away from the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Over 2,000 people living around the field have been moved to relief camps since the blowout occurred. Most of them have also complained of losing their livestock and agricultural fields, and have staged protests seeking due compensation.

OIL has reportedly roped in a team of experts from a Singapore-based organisation called Alert Disaster Control to plug the leak even as the fire rages. Company spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika told The Wire that “there could be a thousand reasons why the fire started”.

An OIL statement that acknowledged the fire but didn’t provide much more detail: “While the clearing operations were on at the well site, the well caught fire.”

The statement also said there have been “violent protests around the well site” and that the company has sought the help of the state’s chief secretary and the district administration. Hazarika said the company has requested the army to help as well, with crowd-control.

In an effort to keep a fire from gripping the blowout, OIL had been spraying water over the area to keep temperatures down, assisted by a spate of rains as well. But June 9 was a particularly dry day and somewhat warm, both conditions thought to have encouraged a spark.

“There is a drilling mobile rig on the top of the blowout site and there are a number of iron pipes hanging over it, so there’s a high possibility that the wind could have caused a speak in those pipes,” Scroll reported Hazarika as saying.

After the first reports of the blowout, a photo of a river dolphin carcass had been doing the rounds on social media platforms. Shortly after, wildlife activists and local indigenous groups alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government has had a callous attitude towards the biodiverse Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, and its population of indigenous people.

Regional ethnonationalist groups like the Beer Lachit Sena, students’ organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union and peasant bodies like the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti have all blamed the BJP government both at the Centre and in the state for what they have alleged is its indifference. Shrinkhal Chaliha of the Beer Lachit Sena told The Wire that the group will help rehabilitate affected villagers.

Wildlife experts and conservationists have expressed dismay over the incident and concerns for the safety of the national park.

“We have to know and understand what kind of species are there and conduct research before the biodiversity vanishes for good,” Jayaditya Purkayastha, a herpetologist, told The Wire. “What is happening there now is unfortunate.”