On 9th September 2020, an engineer working with Oil India Limited (OIL) died after being electrocuted while struggling, along with his other teammates, to douse the fire that has been burning in the Baghjhan Oil Field in Tinsukia District of Assam since June. Arnab Kishore, the young engineer, lost consciousness and fell while working with some electrical equipment at the site of destruction. While people may view this as an isolated incident, it is but a part of a string of accidents that have befallen the inhabitants, villages, and ecology of the area.
Baghjhan Oil Field: Location and Significance
Baghjhan Oil Field is located in the Tinsukia district of Eastern Assam, near Baghjhan village, which houses nearly 4,488 people. It is situated near Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the only riverine island wildlife reserve in the world which is home to many rare and endangered species such as the Gangetic Dolphin, hoolock gibbons, tigers, capped langurs, etc. It is also connected to the famous Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary via Namdapha National Park. The Maguri Motapung Beel, a very important natural wetland that has been a primary source of food, sustenance, and livelihood for the communities living near it, is also only a few kilometers away from the oil field. It has assisted the local inhabitants in myriad ways for many generations and is one of the best fishing spots for local fishers.
The Baghjhan Oil Field was granted by the Central Government to the oil giant of India, Oil India Limited (OIL) in January 2020 for exploratory drilling in search of hydrocarbons under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. This decision invited criticism and censure from the populace, who were apprehensive about the loss of the native ecology and biodiversity. The drilling procedure began in May 2020, with an invisible threat looming large over the people around the area.
The Baghjhan Oil Field has 21 wells, out of which 4 are responsible for the production of Natural Gas and the others for oil generation. Well No. 5, which has been ablaze intermittently for over 3 months, is one of the four natural gas wells. It is said that this well has been producing crude since 2006. The drilling of Well 5 is outsourced to an Ahemdabad-based company, M/s John Energy, under the aegis of the OIL.
How it all started
It was at 10:30 AM, on 27 May 2020, that the residents of the Baghjhan and Tinsukia villages reported hearing a loud sound from the nearby Baghjhan Oil Field. It was later found that a blowout (the uncontrolled release of crude oil from a production well). In their statement, the OIL indicated that due to a sudden increase in activity under the Well 5 of the Baghjhan Oil Field, the well started spewing out crude oil in an uncontrolled manner. The production activities were stalled and the personnel working in that hazardous expanse were evacuated. OIL officials also verified that the leak occurred from existing sand which had been capped to allow exploration of new sand, leading to a “fountain of crude oil” from the sand.
As soon as the well began leaking, the OIL halted all operations at the oil field. The OIL also sought assistance from the Crisis Management Team of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India. One of their first steps to prevent further damage was to install a blowout preventer. OIL also sprayed the area with water and on 30th May 2020, the senior officials of the OIL made their first statement concerning the incident and indicated that the operations to forestall further damage were underway.
The first occurrence of fire
Although the OIL officials had been working to plug the leak, all attempts went in vain when the well caught fire on 9th June 2020 while cleaning operations were underway. The workers were evacuated along with the families living around the area, as the fire rapidly spread to the local grasslands. The fire burnt down crops, houses, and the local flora, leaving behind a trail of destruction and decay. What the people were unaware of was that this fire was there to stay. On the first day itself, the fire managed to injure 4 people and burn down nearly 50 houses. On 10 June 2020, two firefighters, Durlov Gogoi and Tikheshwar Gohain, lost their lives while trying to placate the fire. Their bodies were discovered in one of the water bodies in the vicinity of the site. Bungling its attempts to douse the fire, the OIL sought the help of a Singapore-based firm that sent three of its experts to assist the team in controlling the catastrophic blaze.
Against the backdrop of these ferocious fires, nearly 1610 families, adding up to at least 3000 people, were evacuated from their homes, which had been devastated, and sent to relief camps that were established by the National Disaster Relief Force. As of September, there are 500 people still seeking refuge in these camps. The employees and families of the OIL were also evacuated and transported to relief camps while the OIL struggled to contain the flames that were threatening to reduce an entire town to ash. The Indian Air Force and Indian Army provided immediate assistance to the displaced populace too. However, these immediate response strategies were unsuccessful in pacifying the worries and uncertainties of the thousands of people whose health and livelihoods were at stake.
In the hullaballoo over the impact of these devastating accidents, the discourse around the environmental damage of this unfortunate yet seemingly precedented mishap has taken a backseat. Soon after the leakage began, disturbing visuals of dead aquatic animals began making the rounds on social media sites. On 29th May 2020, the carcass of a Gangetic dolphin smeared with the condensated oil was found in the Maguri Motapung Beel. The body was sent for a postmortem examination to establish the cause of death. The leakage of the gas contaminated the local water bodies, some of which were primary sources of water for the inhabitants. The leaked gas was also carried to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
The fire, as reported by the State Pollution Control Board of Assam, was spread due to unfavorable wind conditions that tipped the scales in the favor of the fire. Many environmentalists have complained that it is essential we demand compensation for both loss of human life and property as well as damage to the local ecology. Local groups and politicians have exploited even such a sensitive issue like this one to spread the venom of their politics.
There have been intense conflicts between the OIL and authorities with regards to the compensation granted to the people to make up for the loss incurred in the wake of the devastation. The NGT and the OIL officials finally negotiated and now, the OIL has agreed to give 25 crores to the families who have been displaced. Each family was also granted an immediate concession of 30,000 rupees.
On 5 June 2020, the locals staged a peaceful protest near the Maguri Motapung Beel demanding the protection of eco-sensitive Dibru Saikhowa National Park a compensation for the losses they incurred. On July 17th, scores of displaced people marched towards the oil well “in an attempt to jump into the well and end their lives”, as reported by East Mojo, an online news portal, after failed negotiations with the Tinsukia District Administration. They were stopped by the police and the district officials and were asked to vacate the space. However, on July 18th, a 45-year-old villager named Surkeshwar Neog died by consuming pesticide. He took this extreme step since he wasn’t able to avail compensation. This shed light on the decadent handling of the entire fiasco by the OIL.
The well was capped using a blowout preventer, on August 18th, but the attempt to “kill” the well (injecting a viscous mud in order to completely stop the production of natural gas) was stymied due to the rupturing of a valve in the casing of the well.