Baghjan Explosion: Man-Made Disasters and the Collective Conscience

The recent major blowout at an oil well in the eco-sensitive region of Baghjan in Assam’s Tinsukia district is widely known by now. The blowout took place on May 27, and since June 9, a massive fire has been raging at the Oil India Limited (OIL) well, when gas that had been leaking ignited.  Two firefighters had died in the blaze.

The company lacked enough resources to control the fire and had to call in experts from Singapore. As I write this article, the well is still burning – it has been capped for now, and there were a few more explosions in between, one of which left the very same experts injured.

The blowout has obviously resulted in the damage of the wildlife in and around the area, with birds like the king quail being found covered in oil. Houses, farms, water bodies and local tea gardens around the well have also been destroyed – at least 3,000 people in a 1.5-km radius of the oil well had to be evacuated on May 27, and more since then.

In June, the National Green Tribunal had directed Oil India Limited to pay an interim fine of Rs 25 crore for the damage caused to public health and wildlife due to the fire.

Aerial view of the Baghjan oil field engulfed in fire, in Tinsukia, Assam, June 9, 2020. Photo: PTI

Much of the history of OIL is well known – how they successfully manipulated their way into getting permission to carry out drilling operations in an eco-sensitive zone and how they recently acquired permission to drill in the biodiversity rich zone of Dibru-Saikhowa in Upper Assam.

It is not just the company alone, but various stakeholders who are involved in helping pave the way for such clearances. There have been many protests over the years by locals, but the company continues to get its way and has escaped public hearings time and again.

However, this article is not about facts and figures. It is about the collective conscience of a people.

As someone from Duliajan Oil City in Assam, the OIL capital of the country, the hate messages I got when I tried to raise my voice about the issue is something I didn’t quite expect – all for condemning the stakeholders and for outlining the severity of the issue at hand.

The division between the ‘elite’ and the ‘marginalised’ has also become very clearly distinguished here. Over 9,000 people are residing in relief camps now. In July, one 45-year-old victim of the blowout, Sukleswar Neog, died by suicide.

The ‘offense’ that people associated with OIL took for what I had to say highlights the ‘elite’ attitude of pushing away of responsibility even as they tried their best to say that the blowout was a “disaster which could not be controlled”. This has been a central theme. Moreover, even locals associated with Oil India  feel ‘attacked’ if anyone speculates about the issue.

But how ‘wrong’ are feelings of anger and complaints about the difficulty of living here with the heat and fumes?

OIL, which prides itself in having Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR) “as an integral part of its existence“, must do more for the people. CSRs are basically corporate and capitalist elements – there have been enough studies which have shown that CSRs don’t actually often achieve their goals or impact a real change in society.

Even the government is hardly blameless – evident from the capitalist nature of the proposed draft EIA with major eco-sensitive zones already getting ‘clearance’ permissions. I, for one, pray that the Atmanirbhar agenda does not mean people use it to support arguments that call for the further exploitation of protected areas – all in the name of minerals and oil.

Being from the very city OIL has its main base in – it’s not easy to voice one’s opinion. The counter argument provided is, “We are producing oil, we have uplifted the region.”

But who is benefitting – why is Assam then not at par with mainland Indian states? Why is it not a rich oil-producing state – as it should be, considering the oil economies of the Middle East?

There are long term solutions that are desperately required. But that day can only come when some semblance of responsibility is taken by overlords who ravage parts of the country to satiate their own greed.

Himadri Gogoi is a postgraduate student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati.

Featured image credit: Reuters