Baghjan fire is out. What’s happened to the Assam villagers ruined by it?

They have returned to damaged homes, uncultivable land, lost livelihoods, and a sense of helplessness.

BySupriti David
Baghjan fire is out. What’s happened to the Assam villagers ruined by it?
Tunu Borgohain was forced to live alone in his house for five months.
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On June 11, powerful tremors sent villagers of Notun Rangagora in Assam’s Tinsukia district running out of their homes in terror. They were caused by a leaking oil well in nearby Baghjan village that had caught fire two days earlier.

The Baghjan fire, as it came to be called, killed two firefighters of the Oil India Limited, which owns the well, damaged nearly three dozen homes, 1,210 hectares of farmland and 470 hectares of small tea gardens, and forced the evacuation of 2,756 families from six villages. They were put up in a pair of local schools which OIL had turned into relief camps. They were told it was an emergency arrangement, but the displaced villagers ended up living in the overcrowded camps, with minimal facilities, for five months before the fire was extinguished on November 15. They felt abandoned and helpless, as did the handful of people who stayed behind in the villages, as Newslaundry reported in mid-September, and were demanding a “concrete plan” for their rehabilitation.

Though they have since left the camps, the sense of helplessness persists as both OIL and the Assam government have practically abandoned them to their fate. They have not even been paid the full promised compensation. Reckoning they couldn’t live off their ravaged farmlands anymore, many villagers haven’t returned to their homes, seeking livelihoods elsewhere.

In Notun Rangagora, a village of about 2,275 people on the periphery of the Dibru-Saikhowa national park, a quarter of the population has not returned, said Bimola Borgohain, 58.

The road to Notun Rangagora village.

The road to Notun Rangagora village.

“After the losses from the floods, a lot of the people could not cope with the additional damage caused by the oil condensate from the Baghjan leak,” she explained. “They moved to a village called Bhimpara Notun, in Tinsukia only. But they are facing problems there as well. They can’t afford to pay rent with their daily wages. Here or there, the people of Notun Rangagora can no longer find peace.”

It would have helped them get back on their feet if they got the promised compensation in full, Bimola said, but the authorities have been apathetic towards them. OIL was to provide the money for compensation and the administration was to distribute it after conducting a survey to assess the damage.

“We received Rs 25,000 in August as compensation, Rs 50,000 in October. The officials said the next instalment would be deposited on November 23 but it wasn’t. And we don’t know if we’ll get any more money in the future,” she added.

Several families haven’t received a penny, she claimed, apparently because the district administration messed up while collecting their bank account details.

Bimola Borgohain at her home.

Bimola Borgohain at her home.

Tridiv Hazarika, a spokesperson for OIL, said the company has not received the final assessment report from Tinsukia’s deputy commissioner, but based on interim recommendations from the National Green Tribunal and discussions with the deputy commission, it has released Rs 36.90 crore for compensating the people impacted by the fire. This sum includes interim relief of Rs 10.93 crore given to 3,000 families put up in the relief camps.

He claimed OIL had deposited the entire amount mandated by statutory authorities as compensation and relief to the affected people, and that the company had to release Rs 50,000 to 1,289 families every month until the fire was brought under control.

Moreover, Hazarika said, 12 families who suffered the most damage from the fire were paid Rs 25 lakh each, 57 families whose houses were badly damaged were given Rs 10 lakh each, and 561 families whose homes or standing crops were partially damaged were paid 2.5 lakhs each.

Newslaundry repeatedly called Niluram Sharma, Tinsukia’s assistant commissioner, for details of the compensation the villagers are entitled to and to ask why they haven’t been paid what’s due them. Our calls went unanswered, as did an email seeking answers to these and related questions. This report will be updated if a response is received.

Oil condensate from the Baghjan blowout is killing betel nut trees in the village.

Oil condensate from the Baghjan blowout is killing betel nut trees in the village.

Oil condensate in water on the way to the family's farmland.

Oil condensate in water on the way to the family's farmland.

Catastrophic change

Notun Rangagora’s villagers depend for livelihood on farming, fishing, or the limited tourist activity around a nearby wetland called Maguri Motapung, said Bimola’s daughter-in-law, Nimali, returning from a day fishing in the wetland. “People in this village fish, farm or work in the tourism industry based around the beel,” she added, using the local term for wetland. “We returned from the relief camp to uncultivable land, destroyed crops, barely any fish in the wetland. The blowout also scared away migratory birds as well, so tourism as a source of income is gone.”

Apart from catching fish, her family grows some vegetables and fruits for daily consumption on small patches of land by the house. It’s much harder to farm than it was before the fire, Nimali said, explaining that since the oil condensate has seeped into the soil, it needs more fertiliser and still doesn’t yield as much as it did earlier. She isn’t sure if and how they can revive their 21-bigha farmland where they grew paddy and lentils.

Pomelo from what remains of the Borgohain family’s fruit trees.

Pomelo from what remains of the Borgohain family’s fruit trees.

The field, which lies two small rivers across from Bimola’s home, is overrun with grass and weeds. Nimali’s husband, Ritupan, sowed moong after returning from the relief camp – Notun Rangagora’s residents were housed in Guijan High School, 11km away – but the crop hasn’t shown any sign of growth. Before the Baghjan blowout, the field would produce enough food to sustain his joint family of five for a year and to sell, Ritupan said, but now it won’t yield enough to even eat. Ritupan has taken to distributing school uniforms to make ends meet.

Ritupan Borgohain at his family's farmland, above, and what remains of the pulses he tried growing on the damaged soil.

Ritupan Borgohain at his family's farmland, above, and what remains of the pulses he tried growing on the damaged soil.

“Reviving this piece of land will ruin us,” Ritupan sighed. “Hiring a tractor and transporting it across the rivers, tilling the land and putting in fertilisers will cost no less than one lakh rupees. Oil condensate from the burning well has changed the soil composition and it will take at least two years to go back to what it was. Our tea bushes too are dying if they aren’t dead already.”

His mother, Bimola, had been dreading this situation the day she was forced to leave her home. “At the camp, I worried about contracting Covid, about my grandson’s education coming to an abrupt halt, about what our future would hold,” she said. “I am back but the fear remains. Cracks in my house and continued vibrations from the oil field are a constant reminder that my family’s lives have been changed, unfairly. I don’t know when we will go back to living like we used to.”

Bimola’s husband, Tunu, was one of the few villagers to stay behind. He did not leave because he was unwell and did not want to risk getting Covid at the overcrowded relief camp. It was a hard and frightening five months staying alone in his home. “The tin roof and walls of my home would shake violently because of tremors from the well and helicopters flying overhead. Even worse was the noise of the fire and the smell of gas. I would tie a cloth around my head to try and stay sane,” he recalled. “I watched my animals die helplessly. Three cows, a bullock and eight goats died because they ate grass laced with oil condensate. I can’t even bear to look at my land, it is ruined.”

He was particularly distressed that he couldn’t attend his grandchild’s birth, Tunu said. His daughter-in-law, Devika, gave birth to a girl in July, a month after she had moved to the Guijan camp. She had been taken to the Duliajan hospital, about an hour’s drive away, and didn’t return to the camp after the delivery. “I went to stay with my mother in Guijan because I didn’t want to risk the health of my child. The blowout and shifting to the relief camp was very stressful, physically and emotionally. I am glad Mayuri is healthy despite everything,” she said, referring to her child. “It is still not normal, but I hope the village returns to how it was one day.”

Devika Borgohain with her daughter, Mayuri.

Devika Borgohain with her daughter, Mayuri.

The road ahead

Although the Baghjan well has been capped, remnants of the oil condensate can still be found in Notun Rangagora’s soil and water. So, it will be a hard few years, at least, for families such as the Borgohains before they have some semblance of a normal life, especially if the government remains apathetic towards their rehabilitation.

Those involved in the tourism industry are rebuilding cottages for tourists.

Those involved in the tourism industry are rebuilding cottages for tourists.

There are signs, however, that the villagers are determined to push on. For one, those involved in the tourism industry have begun rebuilding cottages for bird watchers attracted by migratory birds – Pigeon-tailed jacana, Ruddy shelduck, yellow wagtail, purple swamphen, northern lapwing, Eurasian coot – which populate the wetland from November till April. For now the birds are gone but the villagers hope to see them back soon. When they do return, it will be a sign for the villagers that the worst is behind them.

Pictures by Supriti David.

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