'Cost to Ecosystem Has Taken a Back Seat': Baghjan Fire Fallout Leaves Residents in a Lurch

“What the people need to know and what they will get is still shrouded in mystery. There is no transparency or clarity from anyone,” a source told The Wire.

Guwahati: On July 15, energy giant Oil India Limited (OIL) said that the fire at Baghjan Well number 5 is expected to be doused within the next few days.

However, the inhabitants of villages in and around Baghjan, who have for the last 50 days been reeling from the gas blowout incident on May 27 gas and the unassessed destruction left behind by the fire on June 9, now have to endure the ‘politics’ surrounding compensation, sources told The Wire.

On Saturday, July 18, Sukreshwar Neog, a 45-year-old inhabitant from a village in Baghjan, passed away at the Assam Medical College Hospital in Dibrugarh district after consuming pesticide. According to a report by a local television channel, Neog took the drastic step after he was unable to avail compensation for his house which had been burned down as a result of the fire.

Protests also broke out on the same day and villagers blocked roads in the area demanding compensation.

On July 7, a group of protesters, mostly inhabitants from the villages in and around the affected site, met with officials of the Tinsukia district administration. However, the talks failed to make any progress.

Since the oil field caught fire on June 9, continuous protests have led to the disruption of OIL’s commercial activities.

East Mojo, a regional online news portal, reported on July 7, that scores of displaced inhabitants marched towards the oil well site in an attempt to jump into the well and ‘end their lives’. The protestors, as per the report, were stopped by police and district officials from reaching the site of the gas well.

Sources told The Wire said that two movements have been initiated by inhabitants from two villages – Baghjan village and its adjacent Natun Rangagora village.

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

“I am worried about the dirty politics currently at play and that too at the cost of the inhabitants. There is an attempt to control the local leaders from some groups or organisations to make an ‘effective bargain’ and to shift any responsibility. Some of the leaders are now contractors. Amidst the debate over the politics surrounding compensation for the affected, attention to the fragile ecosystem and the damage it has suffered has taken a back seat,” the source told The Wire.

The source further said, “Some of the groups or organisations vying for compensation for the people are not even registered. What is needed are people with some iota of expertise who can lead the people and speak about the entire issue – not just about the affected people but also about the local ecosystem. Some so-called ‘environmentalists’ are also trying to take advantage of the situation.”

Speaking to The Wire, Niranta Gohain, who runs the NGO Wave Ecotourism (WE), said, “The villagers take the downstream road to reach Tinsukia. But the road has now been closed. Both Baghjan and Rangagora have been affected almost equally. The village near the Maguri Motapung Beel (an important wetland that serves as a source of livelihood for the people of the villages in and around Baghjan) is at a level higher than the Beel. The incident occurred at the level of the Beel. The fire was fed by the winds as Maguri is near the river and hence, more impacted. Protests should also focus on the waste that is flowing in the Brahmaputra.”

Maguri Motapung Beel. Photo: Birendra Kumar Chutia of Green Vision, North East

OIL initially had directed that an amount of Rs 25 crore be deposited with the district magistrate of Tinsukia district as part of a ‘damage pay’. But that direction by OIL was deferred by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

However, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in an order dated July 2, deferred the direction to OIL to deposit the amount of Rs 25 crore till the actual amount and disbursement plan is formulated by the eight-member committee appointed by the NGT.

“Politics surrounding the hullaballoo of compensation cannot be ruled out. What the people need to know and what they will get is still shrouded in mystery. There is no transparency or clarity from anyone. It is very worrying especially for the people whose houses have been burnt. Will they get new houses? And what about employment for those who have lost their livelihood, who were dependent on the ecosystem for their survival? There are many questions that require to be asked,” a source told The Wire.

Kamal Baruah, an adviser to Milan Jyoti Sangha, a local group that held meetings with the district administration, said, “We had a meeting, but it was not fruitful. Local businesses have closed, and scores are unemployed. No one can go anywhere as the road to Tinsukia town is closed and communication is shut. OIL has assured us that it will dole out compensation but how much it will give remains to be seen.”

Also read: Oil India Skipped Public Hearings Before Expanding Drilling in Assam’s Baghjan

Northeast Now, another regional online news portal, in a report on July 9 said that OIL had provided compensation of Rs 9 crore as ‘immediate relief to the people affected by the fire’.

“Resident chief executive of OIL on Thursday sent a letter to Tinsukia deputy commissioner Bhaskar Pegu regarding the compensation provided to the affected people of Baghjan. In the letter, OIL has clearly mentioned about the one-time compensation given to the affected people. Earlier, OIL transferred an amount of Rs 4.83 crore to 1,610 families who were affected due to the Baghjan blowout. Altogether, 1,390 families will get Rs 30,000 as immediate relief. A total of 30,000 families have received the compensation till date,” Northeast Now reported.

“In addition to the people affected, I am concerned about Maguri Motapung Beel and what will happen to both. I am concerned that many people may be left out of the compensation plan for people. I feel whatever data is put for assessment may only offer support for OIL. Politics is at play. There is a possibility that compensation may be reduced by giving commissions to particular middlemen,” another source told The Wire.