What Those Displaced by Baghjan Fire Need: Lessons From Relief Camps

Not enough attention is being given to the needs of people displaced.

What began as an idea among friends went on to develop into a concerted attempt to stand beside victims of the Baghjan oilfield fire and provide relief to the displaced.

The oilfield inferno and the catastrophe that followed compelled us to head towards those living in relief camps, whose lives are more uncertain than ever. The authorities from OIL, who planned only for meal staples, have not deigned to ensure minimum dignity for those displaced.

For the last three days, we visited these campsites, distributed essentials among stranded families and came up with the following observations and appeals.

June 12: No adequate stocktaking

On arriving at the Guijan High School camp, we were told that the people there were inhabitants of the Notun Gaon area. Notun Gaon, which falls within a 1.5-km radius of the blowout site, still shakes like a ceaseless earthquake. This area also borders the Maguri Motapung Beel, a rich biodiversity hotspot. It goes without saying that flora and fauna has been deeply affected, and the effects are likely irreversible.

It came as a shock that there had been no survey, no stocktaking, of the damage by authorities till Friday. We appeal to the government to conduct a thorough study of the affected regions, and the concerned departments (geology/geography/chemistry etc.) of universities in our region to involve themselves if possible, to arrive at a speedy solution.

The number of victims was huge, and our funds limited. We also had no access to a proper record of the people displaced. There are 14 camps scattered across areas, at varying distances from Tinisukia township. A proper head count of stranded people is not yet available in the public domain. Also, we couldn’t locate details of the camp-managing bodies. As is the case, we urge the concerned authorities at the Tinisukia district administration correct this.

The relief camp at Guijan High School. Photo: Bornil Jonak Phukan

One person from the Bandarkhati camp told us, “We were frightened by the coronavirus first, then came the flood, and this blast. The farms were our only means of survival. All our soil was charred in the fire, Maguri Beel, the Dangori River, we lost everything we were living on. Now they are saying that the government will allot money. But we lost everything. We have no documents or papers whatsoever. How are we to get any compensation?” The fear that the lack of documents might disenfranchise them of their rights is a legitimate one. This issue has not yet been addressed by the authorities.

June 14: A pandemic and a stranded populace

With the chief minister’s visit arrived a bouquet of announcements, including the prospect of a higher secondary school in the region. We came to know that those sheltered in the camps include students appearing for their school finals.

In this part of the country, a considerable number of the higher educational institutions have already scheduled their admission processes fir the months of June and July. If things continue as they are, these students will have to give up on their dreams of studying further. We would like to draw the attention of the concerned authorities at the Ministry of Education to this. Youth forums and unions of the locality may also facilitate the admission process online for the stranded students.

In Assamese, this wall says the wetland Maguribeel is Asia’s pride. Photo: Bornil Jonak Phukan

While distributing mosquito repellent as part of our outreach drive, we were intercepted by a woman concerned that those products may have harmful consequences for children. While talking about the enormous damage she suffered to her livestock and farmland, she drew our attention to issues of child healthcare: “Have you seen these kids? They have all gone pale from the night this land was on fire. How long do we need to stay in the camps like this? Our children are suffering in want of proper protection.”

In the same camp, we witnessed that a number of stranded individuals were aged 60 and above. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across continents, children and the elderly need special medical attention as they are more prone. In the relief camp’s small faces, sanitation is not getting the attention it deserves.

June 13: What we could do on Day Two

A team of two visited families sheltered at the Baghjan High School centre, which received an influx of people from the Kordoiguri relief camp yesterday. We distributed 70 packages of supplies among around 100 stranded families; each package contained a set of essentials. We were also armed with a few miscellaneous items to be distributed as deemed necessary.

On our first day of visits, we came to know that the camps near the township have been receiving a fair share of people’s attention, but others are being ignored. Thus we chose to consider the ones receiving less relief materials. The people in the Baghjan High School camp, along with those sheltered  before in Kordoiguri, had to protest with placards in order to have their basic needs met.

People at the relief camp at Guijan High School protesting to demand basic amenities. Photo: Bornil Jonak Phukan

What next?

What appears to be the need of the hour is proper rehabilitation and a reframing of livelihood possibilities for the stranded families. As far as we have seen, the concerns remain largely centred on the people of Baghjan; issues of the neighbouring settlements, of Notun Gaon or Barekuri areas for instance, have not yet come to the fore.

The imminent health hazards for those in close proximity to the site of the fire, following a prolonged exposure to a gas leakage, cannot readily be ruled out; displaced people are complaining of skin rashes and itchy eyes. One person from a nearby village panicked, telling us: “What happened right in front of our eyes was something we had never foreseen. Everything turned sinister. We fear that the very air we are breathing; the water we are accustomed to using is went contaminated. If you ask, everyone will tell you they have an irritation in the skin or an itchiness in the eyes.”

The possibility of serious health implications has not yet been addressed. Oil India Limited must be accountable for the sufferings of the Baghjan victims. The displaced are in situations worse than we imagined, and their woes may worsen if no one makes sustained efforts to rehabilitate them. It is time for everyone working for the cause from different walks of life (academics, ecologists, activists and so on) to take cognisance of the principle of “polluter pays” principle, and so must the patrons of OIL.

Bornil Jonak Phukan is with the Department of Cultural Studies and Ajitabh Hazarika with the Department of English at Tezpur University.