Less than 1 km from Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and at a mere distance of 500 metres from Maguri Motapung beel—a critical wetland habitat in Tinsukia district, Assam—the Baghjan oil well, operated by Oil India Limited (OIL) caught fire on June 9. The fire scorched fields, burned houses and displaced over 1600 families, with environmentalists fearing drastic ecological consequences of the industrial disaster.

Local environment activist and eco-tourism entrepreneur Niranta Gohain claimed that while most reports focus on the damage done in and around Baghjan village, the fire’s impact downstream—where Maguri wetland is situated along with a number of villages—continues to be mostly ignored by Oil India Limited officials as well as the government.

In the June 6 press release by OIL, the company mentioned the wetland, stating it has “engaged local fishermen with boat to identify oil spill, if any, in Maguri Matapung Beel so that immediate remedial action may be taken up as required.” In their following statements, OIL said that an Environment Impact Assessment study has been undertaken by “NABET accredited consultant” M/s ERM India Pvt. Ltd. within the vicinity of the oil well including Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Motapung Beel.

Even before the Baghjan oil well caught fire on June 9, it had been spewing gas and particulate matter for 14 days, since May 27. “The telltale signs of an oil spill are evident,” said environmentalist Rituraj Phukan.

Condensate dripped from roofs and leaves, oily substances created a film on water and the once-green vegetation of the wetland turned brown, “before the fire scorched a vast area including known breeding grounds for several endangered species of avifauna,” he said.

According to Gohain, Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal visited the affected area on June 14. OIL’s press release confirmed the same, stating that the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan and the CM of Assam visited the area along with a number of other ministers “to take stock of the situation at ground zero and the ongoing efforts being undertaken to cap the well”.

Gohain alleged that though the impact downstream has been drastic, “OIL is trying to divert the matter.” “They want to take ministers, people conducting an inquiry and others upstream. Because if they go downstream, everything will be revealed,” claimed Gohain, who hails from Notun village that lies at a distance of 2.5 kms downstream from the oil well.

On June 14 too, “the CM and ministers who visited went to Baghjan and told officials to give the people compensation. But they didn't even speak with the people downstream,” he alleged.

When the fire first sparked, Gohain said he was with the Deputy Collector, representing the villagers of Notun in the discussion. “I was telling him that he hasn't come downstream even once. He hasn't visited till date,” Gohain told The Citizen.

In the days after the blowout first began, the ecological effects of the contamination of air and water were visibly evident. Villagers stumbled upon the carcass of a Gangetic Dolphin, its skin peeled off—the image of which began doing the rounds on social media. “Numerous reptiles, fishes and insects were found dead around the wetlands. A rare Particoloured Flying Squirrel was found on the morning of the fire outbreak,” Phukan told The Citizen.

When OIL was unable to control the initial blowout, they decided to bring in assistance from abroad in the form of experts from the Singapore-based M/s Alert Disaster Control. Though the experts reportedly reached Duliajan, Assam on June 8, an explosion at oil well No. 5 caused a towering inferno just a day later, reportedly visible even from a distance of 30 kms. Two Fire Service personnel of OIL, Tikheswar Gohain and Durlov Gogoi lost their lives in the fire.

“It has been over 150 years since oil was first discovered in Assam, not too far from the site of the blowout. Yet we don't have the technology to contain a blowout, the expertise to prevent contamination of surrounding areas or a consequent fire in the aftermath of an accident,” Phukan told The Citizen.

Just last month, OIL received environmental clearance to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations under Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Locals and environmentalists have expressed concern over this decision that could catastrophically impact the ecology and rich biodiversity of the region.

“There are inherent risks associated with the industry, but the location of these sites multiply the risks to people and biodiversity,” Phukan stated. “The risk assessment by OIL listed several hazards including the risk of blowout leading to uncontrolled well flow, jet fires, explosions, pool fires, etc., for these newly-approved projects to drill at 7 locations,” he told The Citizen.

On June 11, OIL stated in a press release that the “extent of the fire has been contained to the well” and preparations for capping the well were underway. Experts reportedly said that they would require 25-28 days to control the situation.

Gohain explained that though the fire’s impact has reached distances of 15-20 kms, most of it has been concentrated within a radius of 5 kms, where people’s fields have been burned and livestock killed, erasing livelihoods and endangering lives. “Many people in these villages were fishermen who are now finding it difficult to acquire food,” Gohain said. With the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park at a mere distance of 1 km from the well, Gohain added that the grassland of the park also began drying up after the fire.

Locals have been protesting against OIL, demanding compensation. OIL has claimed that “violent” agitations have obstructed work and caused losses to the company. “The people have demanded immediate compensation, even for the future, because this land cannot be farmed now for 30-40 years,” Gohain stated.

Phukan told The Citizen, “These poor villagers haven't benefited from the industry, as is evident in their standards of living. Rather they have to pay with the loss of their properties and livelihoods, as many of them were dependent on the contaminated Maguri wetlands.”

OIL had evacuated people to relief camps in the immediate aftermath of the blowout, when the well was spewing gas “uncontrollably”. However, the relief camps offered little solace as the fear of an imminent fire loomed large, added to the existing panic over the ongoing pandemic. The locals complained of their eyes burning, drinking water contamination, and breathing difficulties.

“Then the fire happened and the poor villagers who had been enduring the toxic environment all these days had to run for their lives,” Phukan said. “Most of the men, women and children, old and infirm, were seen carrying whatever precious little things they could save before the fire engulfed the village.”

More than 1600 families have been placed in relief camps after the fire, reportedly displacing 7000 people. “When the fire broke out, some people from close-by villages made their own relief camp and the government accepted it,” Gohain claimed.

Phukan stated that the incident poses several long-term health risks for the people of Baghjan and surrounding villages while simultaneously causing irreversible ecological damage.

“By all accounts, the fire will burn for weeks, spewing particulate pollution into the atmosphere. Black soot will definitely contaminate food and water sources wherever the wind blows. This will be a long-term health hazard for people and biodiversity of a vast area including in and around the Dibru Saikhowa National Park,” he said.

The Maguri Motapung wetland is an ‘Important Bird Area’ as declared in 1996. It hosts a “thriving population of resident and migratory birds including several vulnerable species like the Swamp Francolin, Marsh Babbler,” stated Phukan. “Birders and photographers converge at this wetland for a glimpse of rarities like the Swamp Prinia, Black-breasted Parrotbill and Baikal Bush-warbler, leading to a booming proliferation of resorts, homestays and bird guides.”

“The future of this important macro-economy for villages surrounding the wetland is now uncertain as the bird habitat has been destroyed,” Phukan told The Citizen.

Meanwhile, Gohain alleged that OIL had set up the Baghjan oil well illegally. He stated that while the Petroleum Ministry and the Government of Assam have instituted high-level inquiries into the incident to assess the environmental impact, “there is no inquiry against the fact that OIL had set up this well illegally.”

He demanded a “judicial inquiry or a high-level national inquiry” into the matter. Gohain had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in Gauhati High Court. The Telegraph reported that the PIL sought adequate compensation to all affected parties including an inquiry into the incident and measures to restore the biodiversity.

However, the High Court rejected the PIL on June 12. Gohain stated the court’s reason for the same was that the PIL had been filed “too early” while a number of inquiries were already underway. A fresh PIL could be filed if “public cause” warranted the same, based on the findings of the “enquiry agencies”.

Expressing concern over the ecological risks posed by extractive industries, Phukan highlighted that “biodiversity-rich landscapes across India are under threat because extractive industries are prioritized over environmental concerns with the resource-rich northeast in the line of fire.”

“Giving precedence to extractive industries over natural forests is regressive, increases GHG emissions and adds to the climate crisis. We can do better than this for the sake of the future generations struggling to cope with an uncertain future due to the unprecedented health emergency,” Phukan told The Citizen.

“The sanctity of our protected areas should not be compromised for short-term economic growth."

Cover photo: Niranta Gohain