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Oil’s not well in Baghjan

| Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

A blowout in an oil well, followed by a blaze, in Assam’s Tinsukia district brings disaster to an eco-sensitive zone

On the morning of May 27, residents of Baghjan village, in Tinsukia district of Upper Assam, heard a loud hissing sound in an oil well operated by government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL). Workers at the oil well and residents started evacuating the area immediately as crude oil spilled into the farms situated next to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. According to an OIL spokesperson, a workover operation was in progress when the blowout (an uncontrollable discharge of oil and and gas) occurred at oil well 5. On June 9, almost two weeks after the blowout, a huge fire was reported from the oilfield. It led to the death of two firefighters. Villagers claimed that four residents are also dead.

Baghjan 5 is one of the 23 oil wells set up by OIL to tap into the large gas reserves in the Brahmaputra basin situated right next to the eco-sensitive zone of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. According to environmentalist Niranta Gohain, the condensate from the oil well has entered Dibru river, which flows through the Maguri-Motapong beel (Assamese for wetland), a birding area with 520 avian species, other amphibians and endangered Gangetic river dolphins. Forest officials also reported the death of a river dolphin and fish in the wetland. “This is the visible impact of the blowout. The loss of invisible microbial life that governs the ecosystem will be far greater,” Gohain says. Assam State Pollution Control Board officials say that no crop can grow within a 5-km radius of the blowout.

Immediately after the blowout, around 2,500 people from Baghjan village were moved to three relief camps. The number of evacuees has since shot up, given the inferno has ravaged almost everything within a one-km radius. While OIL officials have provided immediate relief of ₹30,000 to each affected family, the local population is demanding a ban on oil and gas drilling activities in the area. Residents said that the fear of Covid-19 transmission in the relief camp is high and some have taken shelter in neighbouring villages, in the homes of relatives.

Even if they escape the hungry flames and the deadly virus, the people of Baghjan have almost nothing to return to.

Dhruba Dutta is an independent photographer and film-maker, and a member of StoriesAsia collective.

Published on June 12, 2020