THE oil well in Tinsukia's Baghjan caught fire on 9 June. The next day we started our journey towards Baghjan from Rajgarh. As we crossed the Guijan police post on our motorcycles and drew closer to the mighty Brahmaputra, we could hear a sound which seemed like the clanking of a 1000 fallen pipes. The sounds intensified as we drew closer. Now we could clearly see the huge fire that was erupting from the well and the sound just went on intensifying. As we crossed the bridge above Maguri Motapung swamp, the sight became heart-wrenching and we could also begin to feel the extreme heat. From almost 200 metres from the fire, it was quite clear to us that the temperature was far too high and it would not be wise to stay this close to the fire for a longer period.
Our thoughts ran back to the news of the previous night. Tekhaswar gohain and Durlabh Gogoi, two workers of OIL (Oil India Limited) who were found dead in the swamps, how painful their deaths must have been! Should they not be honoured as martyrs?
To reach Baghjan one has to go through Doomdooma. For their own convenience, OIL has built a bridge across Maguri swamp at Notungaon. The gas blowout took place on 27 May 2020. The residents of Notun Gaon started an agitation demanding the preservation of Dibrusoukhua National Park and a complete shut down of all the mining activities practised in close proximity of the National Park. It is absolutely unlawful and also condemnable at the same time. It is pertinent to note that Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) has also previously protested against the seismic survey conducted by OIL.
On the seventh day of the blowout the protesting locals of Notun Gaon were directed by the local administration to shift to relief camps. The administration did not even arrange any medical care to attend to the growing complaints of respiratory trouble, headache, dizziness, all caused by the contaminated surrounding. The administration assured them that they would be provided with adequate ration and that arrangements for a discussion with the District Commissioner regarding their demands would be made. The villagers sent away their children to their relatives’ places. But to their utter dismay even after spending 14 days in the relief camps, they were not even provided with a single round of ration by the administration. And the day the meeting with the Commissioner was scheduled was the 9th of June 2020, the day the fire broke out.
And even after that the administration could provide the locals of Notun Gaon with just one ordinary three-layered mask and some animal food for their domesticated animals and poultry. We were shocked to know about these sad realities from Nitumoni Chetiya, Dipanjali and Popy Gharfoliya and Haren gogoi as they narrated their stories with moist and saddened eyes. After the incident of 9 June 2020, the Green cover of the Dibru Soukhua national Park has been completely ravaged. Almost everything at a radius of 500 m has been burnt and turned into ashes. The leaves of the trees at a distance of 2 km has turned into some shade of crimson and a layer of thick condensate had settled above the leaves. Not a single individual from either OIL or John Energy, the company responsible for carrying out the drilling operation, was present in the site. Nor was there any security personnel. However, on our way back from the well we managed to have a small conversation with a few men of the Assam police. They told us that their IC could merely save his life the other day. They have been present there from the day of the blowout (27 May). They were the ones closest to the site and yet they were not even provided with a mask or any other safety equipment that is such a basic prerequisite for guarding such an inflammable area.
There are 20 oil wells in the region of Baghjan alone and it supplies gas to not only BCPL situated at Lepetkata, Dibrugarh but every other industry and tea factory in upper Assam. According to the statistics provided by OIL itself, if oil wells in Baghjan are closed then the entire BCPL has to be shut down. We met Niranto Gohain, a local environmentalist who has been working in Dibru Soukhua National Park for more than 30 years now and is acquainted with every nook and corner of the Park. He said that the damages were irreversible and that the already endangered Gangetic Dolphin would never be seen in the waters of Dibru again. The skin of the dolphin is extremely sensitive, Gohain said and even a drop of the condensate oil is enough to take the life of the delicate mammal.
Maguri Motapung swamp has a mosaic of diverse lives, turtles, dolphins, anacondas and various species of fish. According to him the incident is drastically going to affect the lower parts of the Brahmaputra. As many as five villagers of Notun Gaon have already encountered untimely deaths. The reason behind that, Gohain suspects, is connected to the presence of condensates in the air. Gohain pointed out to us that OIL has been extracting gas from the region for 18 years now but not even once have they tried to organize any awareness drive to create a collective awareness among the people on how to act in or deal with such disaster situations.
Gohain and his comrades submitted many petitions to concerned authorities for the safety of the Dibru Soukhua national park but instead of listening to their justified demands and concerns, OIL went ahead and gave the contract of drilling to a Gujarat-based private company "John Energy" whose credentials to carry out such an important task are quite suspect. Gohain has already submitted a PIL in Guwahati High Court regarding the recent incident of Baghjan. He further said that the accident could have been avoided if the government and OIL had taken appropriate measures in this regard. Because of the callous and irresponsible attitude of OIL authorities and the state government, today the biodiversity of the region is in grave danger. It was past 7 in the evening when we returned from the site. The sun was setting and the sky was a strange colour of vibrant red because of the fire burning from the oil well. The fire is burning now in so many hearts, and we left the site hoping that this fire will some day lead to a new dawn.
Having spent the night at Shaheed Gangaram Kol’s place, we started for Baghjan through Doomdooma at dawn. Amidst incessant drizzle, we reached Baghjan. At Jatiya Bidyalaya Baghjan we met with the office-bearers of Baghjan Milan Jyoti Sangha. On behalf of the Yuva Sangha, Prabin Bora, Pranjal Gogoi, Jintu Hazarika, Hemanta Moran, Monoj Hazarika, Satyajit Moran and others have long been protesting against the digging. They informed us that the digging had begun in 2002. At that time itself, they had protested and their comrades had been jailed. From 2002 to 2009, there had been several instances of police repression. The police used to call them at odd hours to the police station. The army would pick up people at 1 or 2 in the night and take them to the nearby camps. Alleging the protestors as being members of ULFA, they subjected them to physical and mental harassment. Monoj Hazarika had said that his father used to be a ‘Gaon Burha’ (village head) for the government, he was suspended from his position for a year because of Monoj’s involvement in the protests.
The digging has continued with such tactics of intimidation and bribery. After 10 years of digging, the first public hearing took place in 2012 at the Baghjan Tea Estate playground. They said they had protested even then but their concerns fell on deaf ears. According to several members of Yuva Sangha, John Energy is primarily responsible for the disaster. They say that this was due to the shoddy cementing job.
Over the last 6 years, there has been an increase in the number of pests. The birds that used to come earlier which fed on these pests do not come nowadays because of the noise from the rig. Almost 80% of the people of the region depend on fishing for their livelihood. They say that the disaster has happened right during the hatching period of the fish. They demand adequate compensation and cleansing of the waters of the Maguri Beel. There is a 50-meter embankment so that the Brahmaputra doesn’t flood the adjoining villages in Baghjan during the monsoon. Due to the tremors felt every day, there is a risk of the embankment being breached which would result in serious inundation of Baghjan.
They all said they had been pushed back a hundred years by the fire. Each family had valuable trees in their yards which are all gone. Each of the 50 families whose houses have been burnt has suffered an estimated loss of around 20 lakhs. The land left burnt will not be conducive to agriculture. More than 2000 people had been shifted to the local Baghjan Dighol Torong ME school since the leak started on the 27th. People whose homes had been within 500 metres of the leaking oil-well were allowed to go there to tend to their domestic animals and livestock after giving a written undertaking that they would be responsible in case of any adversity.
On the day of the fire, these people were taken to the Kardoiguri shelter. The Sangha Members let us know that there was a public hearing on 12 March 2020 regarding the 7 oil-wells that were recently granted permission for digging by the BJP government. There were protests then but to little avail.
After our conversation with the Sangha members we went to the nearby relief shelters. On our way, we saw huge pipes by the roadside used for the transportation of gas. There are a total of 20 wells inside the villages. On the day of the blow-out, around 7000 people from Baghjan, Deeghol Torong and Kaliyapani were taken to Kordoiguri, Bandarkhati, Jokaichuk and Diyamuli shelters. The people at the Bandarkhati shelter informed us that they had to come to the shelter on their own without any assistance or initiative by the concerned authorities. Several villagers along with the 50 families whose homes had been gutted had taken shelter in Kordoiguri.
We met Bornali Moran there. Their house was the nearest to the well. There were several red boil-like spots on her hands. They have been in the shelters without mosquito nets since the 9th. The fire has destroyed the livestock along with their home and the tea, bamboo and betel nut plantations. They had also protested against the construction of pipelines in 2012. They were met with police repression. Three people had been jailed. A member of the Yuva Sangha mentioned about the callous response of Chandramohan Patowary, the minister of industries when he had come to visit the Kordoiguri shelter. Asked about the fire, Patowary only said that there had been bigger fires in Russia, Iran, Tripura, etc. The locals then had to remind Patowary that he was a minister of the Assam government.
Similarly, minister Jogen Mohan had brushed aside allegations saying that the dolphins and fish in the Magur Matapung Beel did not die due to the OIL gasleak. As per received information, the news of Durlav Gogoi’s family and Tikheshwar Gogoi’s family being compensated 1 crore and 60 lakhs respectively is also not true. These amounts are, in fact, the money that the two deceased would have received had they completed their services to retirement and nothing else.
The shelters do not have toilet facilities for women. The availability of mosquito nets is also disproportionately low. Several of the shelters are in an abysmal state and one is greeted by a shocking stench as one enters them. At Diyamul shelter, the people were planning to burn the effigy of Chandramohan Patowary. Manas Tamuli informed us that the company needs to spend 2 per cent of their profit on CSR. However, in the year 2012-13, OIL had spent only 1.41%. OIL has shown that this money has been spent on construction of roads. However, most of these roads are those that lead to the oil-wells. And yet OIL has spent 5 crores for the corporate office of Delhi that produces not a drop of oil. The disaster started with the award of the contract to John Energy in 2002 when the BJP was in power at the Centre, and now when it has struck the BJP is ruling both at the Centre and in the state. But the regime is only interested in the plundering of resources and it is busy suppressing every democratic voice and inconvenient question to facilitate the plunder.
The whole matter needs an immediate and thorough investigation. Baghjan must not be left to turn into another Congo. How fair and wise is it to keep the people locked down in relief camps at a time when there is already a health emergency in the whole world? OIL should make immediate arrangements to shift the people to properly sanitised and protected guest houses and hotels, provide them with Rs 500 day in addition to other daily necessities. The government must also investigate the reasons behind the fire breakout at the site. The affected must be provided with a compensation of 20 lakhs. The government must immediately come out with an economic package after assessing the losses. The privatisation of the PSUs, especially in the strategic oil and gas sector must be halted immediately and policies and directives of sustainable development must be formulated and enforced more stringently. All urgent measures must be taken to protect the environment!
It is shocking that the ruling party and senior ministers have all the time to campaign for the upcoming elections in upper Assam, but no time to listen to the pain and grievances of the people of Baghjan. Like in the case of Covid19, the state seems to have abdicated all its responsibilities in the case of the Baghjan fire too, leaving the affected people to fend for themselves. We do not have the words to condemn this apathy and irresponsibility of the state. The whole nation must today stand with the people of Baghjan!