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Baghjan fire: Assam's 159-day inferno

India’s longest burning oil fire has left a trail of devastation in Baghjan. Locals, who have lost their homes and livelihoods, are protesting oil exploration in the area and won't rest till the oil company leaves

Rescue workers recovering the body of a worker on 10 June, following the disaster at Baghjan.
Rescue workers recovering the body of a worker on 10 June, following the disaster at Baghjan. (Getty Images)

For the first time since 27 May, Runu Chaorak can “hear silence”. It’s an odd way to put it but the 36-year-old, and the other 1,000-odd residents of Goriating village in Upper Assam, on the banks of the Brahmaputra, have lived with a loud hissing sound for more than five months—the shrill whistle of natural gas leaking from the Baghjan oil and natural gas rig. On 15 November, Oil India Ltd (OIL) finally doused the fire that had been burning for 159 days since 9 June, and “killed the blowout” that had leaked gas for 172.

Chaorak is still worried though—she fears that migratory birds like the Baikal teal and Eurasian Wigeonwill no longer return to Goriating, which thrives on freshwater catch from the Maguri Motapung beel, a large wetland on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra. She has lived there all her life, but Birds from the northern hemisphere usually start arriving by early November.

In the past six months, locals have lost their homes and livelihoods, farming and fishing have come to a halt, oil still coats the vegetation and water bodies. There are fears of groundwater contamination. Not only have the migratory birds that usually halt here given the area a miss, birders say the grassland birds that were breeding at the time of the disaster left their nests without hatching or left their chicks to die.

Residents worry not just about the present but about the future, as government-owned OIL denies irregularities in operation and moves ahead with plans to drill further in this ecologically rich but fragile area that is also part of a seismically active zone. In May, OIL got environmental clearance for drilling under the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, considered the world’s largest protected area on a river island, using extended-reach drilling to extract hydrocarbons from inaccessible places—a first for India.

Residents and the authorities continue to count the health, livelihood and environmental costs. The beel, crucial to local livelihoods and the biodiversity of the region, has always been a stop on the international birding map. It’s home to more than 80 kinds of fish, including the golden mahseer, and over 110 bird species, including eight listed as endangered or near-threatened on the IUCN Red List, such as the swamp grass babbler, the ferruginous duck, the white-winged wood duck and the falcated duck. Less than 10km away is the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. “Migratory birds like Amur falcons have arrived but are avoiding the beel. Some have gone farther south of Dibru Saikhowa towards Nagaland, while a few migratory birds have sought shelter in small ponds. Most of the water bodies here are covered with oil,” says Chaorak, a part-time tutor.

She recalls the morning of 27 May, when she heard a loud explosion while she was teaching her children at home. This was followed by an even louder hissing sound. “People thought they were fighter jets as everyone was talking about the war with China. But soon we saw a mist descending on the bamboo thicket opposite the beel. Fire tenders rushed towards the thicket. Someone from the village came running, screaming that the crude oil and gas from the rig were flowing out uncontrollably,” she says. Less than a fortnight later, on 9 June, a spark set off a massive fire that reduced the gas rig and 57 houses to cinders.

It took over five months to control the disaster. OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika said specialised oil fire snubbing equipment had been hired from Canada. “Fire has been doused completely. There is no pressure in the well now,” he said, earlier this month.

OIL’s announcement isn’t enough for Chaorak and her neighbours. “Until Oil India packs up its production rigs from the area, there will not be any justice,” she says. “Their work has been affecting our environment for years now.”

Reduced to cinders

It was in April that “workover operations”, including replacing machinery, began to maintain Baghjan 5, the oil and gas rig owned by OIL and operated by Gujarat-based John Energy, which produced about 950 kilolitres of crude, and 1.29 million standard cubic metres of gas, per day. On 27 May, the day of the blowout, the area, with about 500 families, was evacuated as soon as OIL workers and contractors noticed condensates and crudes spilling into wetlands and the village commons, turning the area into a tinderbox. It got even worse on 9 June, when a spark set off the fire that would burn for 159 days.

As monsoon floods and the spread of covid-19 slowed the response, over 1,600 families from the Doomdooma and Chabua sub-divisions, known for their tea, fisheries and lentils, were pushed into relief camps, according to the Tinsukia deputy commissioner’s office. The Pollution Control Board, Assam, has recorded noise levels from the devastated well peaking at 104 decibels (dB), way above the World Health Organisation’s permissible levels of 55-70dB. At its loudest, the sound could be heard 12km from the well.

In Baghjan and the surrounding villages, residents say they have been shouting to be heard even indoors. “The deafening sound of the leak and fire has changed the way we speak. We are soft-spoken by nature. For little things, we had to scream, which made us even angrier,” says Purnima Hatibaruah, 49, a resident of Natun Rongagora, which faces Baghjan 5.

The environmental damage is still unfolding. After two petitions filed against OIL by Kolkata-based environmental activist Bonani Kakkar and the Tinsukia-based Wildlife and Environment Conservation Organisation (Weco) reached the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a committee of eight experts, led by former Justice B.P. Katakey, was set up.

Biome in peril

Avid birder Ranjan Kumar Das, a professor of geography at Tinsukia College and a member of the NGT’s expert committee, has been visiting Baghjan regularly over the last five months. “There were coatings of oil seen on each and every plant life, water bodies, tea gardens, agricultural fields and on the other man-made structures. The grasslands were severely affected,” he says.

A pair of egrets on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Maguri Motapung 'beel', a large wetland on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, has always been a stop on the international birding map. This is the first year the 'beel' has not had any avian visitors.
A pair of egrets on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Maguri Motapung 'beel', a large wetland on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, has always been a stop on the international birding map. This is the first year the 'beel' has not had any avian visitors. (Getty Images)

The Dibru Saikhowa National Park lies on the intersection of the Indo-Myanmar and Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hot spots, two of 36 such places in the world. A biodiversity hot spot is essentially a biologically rich yet highly threatened place, with at least 1,500 endemic plant species.

According to researchers from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the secret to this biodiversity is the shifting river mosaic that pushes the island national park 240m north of its position every year on the Brahmaputra. “The entire biome of Dibru Saikhowa, its wetlands and the rivers connecting it, will face long-term effects. Disappearance of endangered Gangetic dolphins due to pollution, respiratory diseases among human beings are just the immediate effects,” says Wakid Ahmed, part of the team of 27 WII researchers who studied the impact of the disaster on the local ecology. Seven weeks after the blowout, the team found a coating of oil on all the vegetation, water bodies and the wetland.

It also found high concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), usually caused by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, in the waters of the Lohit and Dibru rivers and the Maguri Motapung wetland. “Many of these pollutants will leach into the ground and contaminate groundwater. Long-term restorative efforts are needed for cleaning up these pollutants,” the WII report states.

The NGT panel’s preliminary, 31 October report says bird density and diversity has come down within a 1km radius of the site. It noted an increase in the “death of aquatic fauna”, adding that the “encounter rate of Gangetic River Dolphin in the area has decreased by 89% post of the blowout”. Village wells had been contaminated, it observed, and the film of oil on water bodies made fishing impossible.

Weco’s Manab Chutia says the Baghjan story is far from over. “Entire farming and fishing areas have been decimated by this blowout. People are out of jobs and many have migrated to the cities. We want the government to pay attention to the plight of the people. Money alone won’t solve their problems,” says Chutia.

Scattered assessments

Along with his neighbours, Manuj Hazarika, a farmer in Baghjan, now spends most of his time in the circle office of Doomdooma. “We provided the district administration with a list of affected persons. Every family is entitled to the compensation announced in the NGT’s interim order. We found that in some cases two or three people from the same family were paid while some families were left out altogether. The district administration has ordered a reassessment but some are yet to see their names on that list of beneficiaries,” he says.

In August, close to 9,000 people were still living in 14 relief camps; about 650 are still in camps. Most of the locals have either lost their homes entirely or have suffered damage, says Tinsukia deputy commissioner Diganta Saikia. “Studies are going on to assess the impact. The Assam government has introduced a low-cost rental housing scheme for the affected. We are overseeing the disbursal of compensation. Irregularities pointed out by people with proper proof have been taken into consideration,” says Saikia.

In October, the NGT-appointed committee recommended an increase in the number of families eligible for compensation, bringing the total number of families to 173, from the initial 20. OIL is also paying the rent for some families whose homes were destroyed, helping them to resettle in the same village or nearby. The state government has announced a clutch of schemes, including a 30-bed hospital, a skill development centre and a handloom procurement hub, for those affected by the fire, but these projects will take years to come to fruition.

For now, says Manuj Hazarika, free health insurance cover should have been provided. “This is what we need immediately—our health has been impacted by the disaster,” he says. “That’s the least they can do for us. We will see if the other promises come through.”

Manuj Hazarika has received compensation but Chaorak, who lives within the 5km impact area of the blowout site determined by NGT, and about 400 other families in Goriating have not. “Like the Baghjan residents protested, we will also have to start a protest, else no one will remember us,” she says.

The people in Baghjan see little hope. The WII has cautioned that further oil exploration in Baghjan could be risky as the area falls in a zone with high seismicity. But OIL is going ahead with plans for extended-reach drilling in seven locations.

“What if there is another Baghjan-like incident in one of these places?” asks Niranta Gohain, a local activist who has launched a political party, Assam Janata Dal, to mainstream the Baghjan issue. “Why should they try this in an area where thousands of people live within an ecologically fragile habitat?”

Anupam Chakravartty, an Assam-based independent journalist, mostly writes on environmental politics and displacement.

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