‘OIL made a mistake, but we are paying the price’: As the Baghjan fire burns, villagers feel abandoned
Ground Report

‘OIL made a mistake, but we are paying the price’: As the Baghjan fire burns, villagers feel abandoned

They want closure, acknowledgement of their suffering, and a concrete plan to ensure their rehabilitation.

By Supriti David

Published on :

As I stood on the bridge over the Maguri Motapung beel in Guijan, Assam, the low ominous roar of the Baghjan fire in the distance drowned out the voices of the protesters behind me. I had only seen its scarlet glow from my balcony until then and now, here it was, less than a couple of kilometres away.

The flame as seen from the bridge.
The flame as seen from the bridge.Supriti David

It doesn't look that bad, I said out loud. A woman heading down the road towards the fire heard me and remarked, "It gets louder and brighter as the day ends."

***

On June 9, natural gas and oil condensate that had been leaking out of an oil well in Baghjan for 14 days caught fire. Nearly 90 days later, while the fire at the Oil India Limited-owned field has been contained, its effects linger on unbattled, leaving in limbo the lives and livelihoods of those affected.

The oil well is located near Baghjan village in Assam’s Tinsukia district. Around six villages cluster around it, and most residents depend on farming and agriculture for survival.

The leak took place after an explosion on May 27. After it caught fire on June 9, killing two OIL firefighters, tremors began on June 11 and continue to this day. Attempts to cap the well over the last four months have failed.

While up to 20 houses were damaged by the explosion, 11 homes in the village were completely gutted by the fire. According to a district administration report quoted by the Logical Indian, 1,210 hectares of agricultural land and 470 hectares of small tea gardens were damaged.

The district administration is currently in the process of compiling a detailed report after assessing damage suffered by 2,756 families, spread across the villages of Baghjan and Notun Gaon, among others. Six or seven villages have been affected in total, according to an OIL spokesperson.

This includes the residents of Natun Rangagora, a village of 2,275 people lying on the periphery of the Dibru-Saikhowa park, about two km from the blowout site. With their agricultural land destroyed and houses damaged, their lives have abruptly altered for the worse.

For the last three months, Natun Rangagora’s residents have been stranded in Gujan High School in Guijan. With Assam’s commerce and industry minister declaring last week that it will take at least two more months to douse the fire, there seems to be no respite in the offing.

Guijan High School, one of two temporary relief camps for a total of 3,000 people.
Guijan High School, one of two temporary relief camps for a total of 3,000 people.Supriti David

In June and July, there were 14 relief camps across Tinsukia district, housing nearly 9,000 people. Now, there are just two: the camp at Guijan High School and the other at Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME School. Both schools house nearly 3,000 people between them, according to OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika.

Where did the other 6,000 go?

“The actual number of people impacted has always been around 3,000 people,” Hazarika said. “The remaining 6,000 were never impacted; it was apprehension, fear and anxiety that drove them out of their homes. This is an important point because otherwise, 9,000 people should still be in the camps now as nothing else has changed since June 10.”

Anticipating that the administration’s assessment of the situation would take some time, Hazarika said, OIL released Rs 9 crore in August as interim relief to affected people. “Their final settlement would be done once the compensation report is provided to us by the government,” he said. “We also released Rs 20 lakh to the 11 families whose homes were greatly destroyed because of the fire.”

Twenty families had their houses damaged, and their homes will be demolished and reconstructed, Hazarika said. “Apart from them, everyone else can go home. There is nothing much to worry about in their homes or farmlands. If there is an issue of fertility, it will be taken into consideration by the experts.”

When asked about people being forced to live with sound pollution and the smell of gas if they returned to their homes, Hazarika said: “Staying in a camp doesn’t reduce the sound pollution or gas smell in any way. What is happening is that people are apprehensive that if they don’t stay in the camp, they will not get access to compensation.”

He emphasised that OIL understands the “trauma” that residents went through, and that the company is not denying that there is a problem.

OIL is also closely following the status of the government’s compensation report, he added, and had been told that it’s in its “final stages of completion”. However, the Wire reported that an expert committee will submit the report only by November 5 — two months away.

Until then, residents will have to wait to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Lost farmlands, exacerbated by the floods

When I arrived at the relief camp set up at Guijan High School, it looked deserted. Apart from a few clothes drying in the sun, and mattresses visible inside classrooms, there was little indication that at least 1,000 people have made the school their home since June 9.

As I walked around, I met Rubul Gogoi, a resident of Natun Gaon. He was packing up food and loading it onto a small truck. Where is everyone, I asked. Gogoi said that half of the camp’s inmates had gone back to their villages to check on their land. They would return in the evening.

And what about the rest of the inmates?

They were on a bridge nearby, protesting, he said. Gogoi was packing food for the protesters, most of whom are women.

Rubul Gogoi overlooks the preparation of food for inmates at the relief camp at Guijan.
Rubul Gogoi overlooks the preparation of food for inmates at the relief camp at Guijan.Supriti David

“They have been there since yesterday morning, demanding compensation for our destroyed farmland,” he explained. “All of us are only surviving on the compensation we received a month ago from OIL, as we have no job or income. My fields are destroyed and the walls of my house have cracks because of the tremors after the explosion.”

Another inmate of the camp said that two or three people had gone back to their homes and tried to resume farming their land. But the land was in a bad state, and cultivating paddy was no longer possible. “The condensate from the leak has completely destroyed the soil and damaged our existing crops,” he said, “which is why there is no way we can do anything at the moment.”

Gogoi said that Natun Gaon and the adjacent village of Baghjan bore the brunt of the damage from the leak and subsequent fire. “Although no houses or fields were burned, there was oil condensate that destroyed our crops and entered our water bodies,” he said. “Since then, floodwater has ravaged our village three or four times.”

For Gogoi, this is a cause of additional worry, because the floodwaters might have removed evidence of the damage from the Baghjan oil well. While his village received Rs 25,000 compensation per family from OIL in August, he isn’t sure if they will be eligible for further compensation.

On June 26, an expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal suggested three categories of affected people, based on which compensation would be disbursed. According to the Indian Express, this compensation is Rs 25 lakh for those whose houses were “completely destroyed”, Rs 10 lakh for those “severely damaged”, and Rs 2.5 lakh for those “moderately damaged”. So far, the report added, 12 families whose houses were completely burnt have been given Rs 20 lakh; 1,484 families have been given Rs 30,000; and 1,197 families have been given Rs 25,000 as one-time compensation.

But what about people like Gogoi, who suffered the floods after their homes were damaged? OIL’s Tridiv Hazarika admitted that there are some families for whom damage could not be assessed, as the floods prevented officials from approaching their houses.

Hazarika also emphasised that OIL, along with the local government, is providing free health care, food, mattresses and other essential items to those in the relief camps.

What is OIL doing to mitigate the damage to farmland?

Hazarika said, “Due to the nature of the environment here in Assam, a good spell of monsoon and some showers will take care of these challenges. We have also been doing bioremediation with TERI [the Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute] and are nearly at the end of this process. This will take care of a large part of the impacted area.”

Bioremediation is a process where microorganisms are introduced to an area to break down environmental pollutants which, in this case, is crude oil or condensate spill. Hazarika. However, Hazarika reiterated that OIL will, eventually, be guided by experts’ evaluation of the affected land.

Oil condensate on the tea bushes in Natun Gaon.
Oil condensate on the tea bushes in Natun Gaon.Supriti David

“They may say that a particular land may not be arable for the next few months and accordingly, they will make those recommendations for the compensation,” he said. “The final compensation report will therefore take care of all these issues in a holistic way.”

But a world away from surveys and compensation reports, the villagers themselves, who depend on the land for food and income, are in the dark. Time is running out for them too: Rubul said that schools will reopen eventually and though the inmates haven’t been asked to vacate the camps yet, they will soon have no choice.

‘Why are they neglecting us?’

Four months in a relief camp is a long time. It’s an entire harvest season lost, and inmates are grappling with loss, multiple health issues, the floods, and the looming fear of Covid.

Staying in the camp at Guijan High School, Protibha Neog, a resident of Natun Gaon, is outraged at how they’ve been abandoned.

Protibha Neog voices the concerns of the people of Natun Gaon.
Protibha Neog voices the concerns of the people of Natun Gaon. Supriti David

“Why are they neglecting us? Are we animals, to be cooped up and forgotten like this?” she said “Either shut it [the fire] down or rehabilitate us. We need closure. It's been nearly four months now and we still have no clue as to when all of this will end."

For the last two days, Neog and around 100 others have stood on the bridge across Maguri Motapung beel, blocking OIL’s access to the Baghjan fire until they’re given clarity on what will happen to them. A wooden barricade has been put up on the bridge, with a sign that reads “Indefinite Road Block”.

he protestors have blocked the road leading to the blowout site until their demands are met.
he protestors have blocked the road leading to the blowout site until their demands are met.Supriti David

“Till now, only the circle officer has come to speak with us. No representation from OIL has bothered to come,” Neog said. “The officer said it would take three days to arrive at a solution. We told him that until we receive the compensation for all we have lost, we will sit here and protest. We will eat and sleep on this bridge. We have nowhere else to go. There is no home for us to return to.” The circle officer’s visit was on September 2.

At that moment, I realised barely a handful of protesters were wearing face masks. When I asked them about it later, a woman at the camp replied, “Can you understand how much we have bearing down on us at one time? We have had to face losses because of the lockdown, the flood, and now we have lost our entire village and livelihood. We can't even afford the expenses for the health issues we are facing because of the leak, so worrying about Covid is not very high on our list of priorities at the moment.”

There were barely any masks in sight as the people of Natun Gaon protested.
There were barely any masks in sight as the people of Natun Gaon protested.Supriti David

OIL’s Hazarika reiterated that the camps are equipped to handle these issues. “OIL’s efforts are to take care of the general health conditions arising out of the blowout,” he said. “Natun Gaon is further away [from the well] and if other camp inmates staring closer to the site are okay with our efforts, I believe there should not be any reason to complain.”

‘Slowly but surely, my crops are dying’

In June, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal praised the “resilience” of residents in dealing with the “unfortunate and unexpected” fallout of the oilwell. Sonowal had visited Baghjan village, and promised “proper compensation”, as well as the setting up of a model health care facility, a veterinary hospital, a higher secondary school, and a skill development centre.

This is cold comfort for Jintu Borgohain, a resident of Natun Gaon and one of the few men at the protest on the bridge, who pointed out that Sonowal “did not find it important” to visit Natun Gaon.

Being closer to the blowout site, Baghjan village suffered the most damage, said OIL’s Hazarika. At present, Baghjan villagers occupy the only other relief camp at Baghjan Dighal Tarang ME School. They have also set up a “symbolic” relief camp outside the deputy commissioner’s office in Tinsukia in protest.

Jaideep Rajak, the attached circle officer for Tinsukia district, told Newslaundry that he believes the protesters are unhappy with the category of compensation they have been assigned, and are demanding higher compensation.

Jintu Borgohain received Rs 25,000 interim compensation in August. He’s heard about the National Green Tribunal’s categorisation on which compensation will be based, but pointed out that officials have not clarified to the villagers “who, on what grounds, and how much compensation any of us will get”.

Borgohain has suffered a complete loss of livelihood and land — an impact that he thinks will take nearly 10 years to improve.

“We stayed in our homes for as long as we could. We put up with the smell of gas, the condensate on our crops, and the resultant health conditions for a long time,” he said. “But on June 9, when the explosion took place, there were earthquakes that cracked the walls of houses in the village. We knew then that we could no longer stay in the village. We rushed out of our homes and have been away ever since.”

Borgohain later visited the village to inspect the damage.

“I saw that the leaves of my tea bushes were turning red. I have pictures to prove this,” he said. “My coconut trees are dying. All the flowers on the betelnut trees are dead. Slowly but surely, my crops are dying. We have to shout to be heard in our village because of the sound pollution, and now we have begun to accept it as the new normal.”

Photographs by Jintu Borgohain of the damage to his tea garden and village
Photographs by Jintu Borgohain of the damage to his tea garden and village

Borgohain believes it will take no less than eight to 10 years before he can expect the yield of his land to improve.

“The condensate has seeped into the soil and only silt from floods in the coming years will be able to replenish its fertility,” he explained. “This year, there will be fish in the beel and no crops in our lands; how do we feed ourselves this year?”

Residents of Natun Gaon say that the oil condensate and sound pollution have killed the fish in the beel
Residents of Natun Gaon say that the oil condensate and sound pollution have killed the fish in the beelSupriti David

A wetland gone silent

A year ago, a majestic congregation of migratory birds cloaked the Maguri-Motapung wetland, located 500 metres from the blowout site.

Now, an eerie silence hangs over the beel. The water is still and dark, and fishing nets and boats lie abandoned on the banks.

Bijoy Gohain, a fisherman from Natun Gaon, said he’s extremely distressed about his future.

“All those whose livelihood depends on the beel are without jobs now. The fish that came in after the flood have also died because of the sound pollution, oil condensate and gas, but OIL is not taking any responsibility,” Gohain said. “How are we expected to live like this? We fish to feed ourselves as well as earn an income. How do I go on like this?"

Bijoy Gohain stands infront of the Maguri beel, his boats and fishing nets have been abandoned for months.
Bijoy Gohain stands infront of the Maguri beel, his boats and fishing nets have been abandoned for months.Supriti David

Gohain received Rs 25,000 as interim compensation but pointed out: “How long are we expected to live on that? We are now being forced to find odd jobs to make ends meet and survive. Most children and elderly family members of the village, mine included, have been sent away to other villages because we cannot care for them here. We cannot live like this. OIL made a mistake, but we have to pay the price."

OIL maintains that there is no oil condensate in the beel and in Natun Gaon, Gohain said, but villagers have photographic evidence that proves otherwise.

“OIL has stated that the area within a 150-metre radius from the actual fire is a hot zone, and that 80-160 metres after that boundary is the only area affected by condensate,” he said. “According to that assessment, neither us nor the beel should have been affected. But we both were.”

Gohain said he presented this evidence to Tinsukia’s deputy commissioner. “Even after we presented pictures of the crop and land in our village affected by oil condensate, OIL maintains that there was no oil in the village. This is why we are protesting."

The deputy commissioner’s office told me the survey is “ongoing”.

Children from Natun Gaon hold up posters that read 'Let us live'
Children from Natun Gaon hold up posters that read 'Let us live'Supriti David

The villagers want closure, acknowledgement of their suffering, and a concrete plan to ensure their rehabilitation. They want OIL to take full responsibility for the destruction it brought onto the ecosystem and their lives. They are also unimpressed by official explanations of compensation, stating that not one person has come to talk to the villagers or assess the damage to their lives.

"They are only focused on Baghjan, where people's houses were burnt,” said Borgohain. “We are an afterthought, if at all. There's so many details that can be missed out on if they don't confer with us. For instance, what is going to happen to the 150 people in our village who were engaged in the tourism sector here at the beel? How are they expected to survive? We want to know why they won't acknowledge our suffering."

***

The flame a few meters away from the last checkpoint.
The flame a few meters away from the last checkpoint.Supriti David

My desire to witness the flame up close got the better of me. I borrowed a Scooty from one of the villagers and rode up to it.

The pleasant breeze turned hotter the closer I got, and there was an unmistakable smell of gas. What was most daunting, however, was the sound of the flame. The low hum on the bridge quickly turned into a roar and by the time I stopped in front of the last checkpoint, I had a nauseating headache and had to shout over the noise to be heard.

I had only been there for 10 minutes. The area’s residents have lived with this for months — and there’s no end in sight.

As the day slowly slipped into darkness, I saw what the woman meant about the fire burning brighter. What looked unassuming — a thin, wispy cloud — during the day turned violently red at night. As the villagers continued to talk about their suffering, the cause of their woes burned bright behind them.

Residents of Natun Gaon protest as the flame roars behind them.
Residents of Natun Gaon protest as the flame roars behind them.Supriti David
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