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Baghjan: Social Workers Say OIL Overlooked Mental Health of Blowout Victims, Violated CSR Rules

On July 18 , a 45-year-old in Baghjan, died at the Assam Medical College Hospital in Dibrugarh district, after consuming pesticide. This has underlined the need for immediate attention to mental health.

Guwahati: Two recent complaints raised against Oil India Limited include the charge that the company as overlooked the mental health of displaced villagers affected by the Baghjan oil well disaster, and violated corporate social responsibility guidelines while dispensing compensation.

OIL is one of India’s biggest fossil-fuel public sector units.

As OIL continues to douse the fire engulfing well number 5 at Baghjan, two Guwahati-based social workers have said that it has been lackadaisical in providing psycho-social support to disaster-affected villagers rendered homeless and traumatised by the fire.

Social workers Rakesh Hazarika and Dharitri Nath of the civic organisation Global Pandemic Response Forum (GPRF) and its offshoot programme Centre for PTSD Alleviation and Research (CPAR) blamed OIL for overlooking chemical disaster (industrial) guidelines of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in providing psychosocial support to the affected people in Baghjan.

On July 18 Sukreshwar Neog, a 45-year-old inhabitant from a village in Baghjan, died at the Assam Medical College Hospital in Dibrugarh district after consuming pesticide.

Also read: Whose Oil Is it in Assam – and Whose ‘Development’?

According to news reports, Neog had not been able to get compensation for his house which had burned down as a result of the fire.

Speaking to The Wire, Hazarika and Nath said that despite multiple communications to OIL’s administration over this, there has been no response of any kind.

Emails were sent to the OIL’s chairman and managing director, to the executive directors, and to the general manager (medical service) by the duo on July 2, June 25 and 30, and June 17, respectively.

On July 5, the activists mailed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) where they complained that OIL has been dragging its feet over their proposal to provide organised psychosocial support and mental health counselling to the affected people at Baghjan.

Nath on July 10 wrote a letter to the chairman of the committee of experts which was constituted by the NGT to oversee the crisis meted out by the May 27 gas blowout incident and the subsequent fire on June 9.

In the mail to NGT she stated that the incident has exposed the people to long-term psychological afflictions as they now have anxiety, stress, and depression.

She mentioned that displacement, life in relief camps, loss of property, livelihood, and the uncertainties of future rehabilitation are taking a severe toll. She also said that the sound pollution, pollutants in their drinking water, poor air quality, periodic ground tremors, along with the ongoing pandemic, were trying.

Also read: COVID-19 and Mental Health: Suicidal Tendencies and Self-Harm on the Rise

“In the letter to the PMO we stated that during the Bhopal gas tragedy mental health professionals at the behest of ICMR were on the ground for 60 days after the incident. We also stated that we are at better capacity in achieving a better response with regards to the Baghjan tragedy. Psychosocial support and mental health counselling come within the gambit of relief and rehabilitation.,” they said.

When they contacted officials with the district mental health programme in Tinsukia district, they were told that they have been assigned COVID-19 duty.

The activists plan to write to international organisations to help them run yearlong mental health support camps for the Tinsukia victims.

NDMA guidelines for Chemical Disasters (section 4.2.7 under Medical Preparedness in Page 34) within chapter 4 titled ‘Guidelines for Chemical Disaster Management’ state, “Medical preparedness will include the recognition of the impact of chemical disasters, and shall focus on injuries, illness and public health problems including psychosocial trauma that results in their wake.”

Another norm under section 4.4.1 under Important Elements of Response (page 39) point number 9 states, “The civic responsibilities including identification of victims, safe disposal of dead bodies, preventing the spread of contamination and post-disaster psychosocial care shall also be dovetailed into the practise of various responders.”

Section 4.4.3 of the same chapter under Relief and Rehabilitation segment clearly and categorically states, “The psychological impact of a chemical disaster manifested as psychosocial trauma including psychological reactions, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological ailments in displaced disaster victims needs to be addressed. Counselling by psychologists and psychiatrists for those suffering from mental trauma is an essential element of medical rehabilitation.”

Both Hazarika and Nath said none of these guidelines have been put to use by OIL.

This reporter mailed OIL’s management for response regarding any initiative on their part to initiate programmes to address the mental health of the affected people in Baghjan. The copy will be updated if and when they reply.

The Wire also reached out to Tridiv Hazarika, who looks after public relations at OIL.

Also read: ‘Cost to Ecosystem Has Taken a Back Seat’: Baghjan Fire Fallout Leaves Residents in a Lurch

“We have been doing certain things, but they are not formal. The Art of Living Foundation had conducted some sessions at Baghjan village a few weeks ago. We said we have no issues as they will be doing this on their own,” said Hazarika.

‘Violation of CSR guidelines’

The other complain against OIL, over violating CSR guidelines, was brought by three upper Assam based petitioners, Soneswar Narah, Mohammad Afreen Rahman and Samudrajit Gohain, who last month filed a case against OIL at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on grounds that the wells contained gas-condensates and that OIL had not taken the requisite precautions.

According to the trio, a district administration notification on July 17 (No.TSK/Oil Cell/Baghjan Gas Blowout/fire breakout case/Pt-III/2020/8) mentions compensation payment of Rs 2.20 crores to 11 families. “But very strangely, it also mentioned that the said compensation amount will be debited from the CSR fund of A/C no: 7154010000892 of A.G.V Bank in Tinsukia,” the three said.

They pointed out that not a single rupee of CSR fund can be used by any corporate entity to pay off any fine or compensation, fees for clearance or licence and so on. CSR fund can be used for only specific purpose and violation of CSR laws is now a punishable criminal offence for company directors.

Rahman told The Wire, “A journalist sought the opinion of both Tinsukia DC and OIL. They said that the compensation amount has not been paid from the CSR fund. Only that the CSR fund money was parked in that said bank account and compensation money is being paid out from the “operational account” of OIL. This has added to the confusion.”

The activists cited the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India guidelines for auditors, which say that CSR spending cannot be mingled with other accounts and has to be maintained in a separate account. “We believe both Tinsukia DC and OIL owe better and convincing clarification,” said Rahman.