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Ecological restoration of Baghjan

The voluminous report of the one-man probe panel into damage to the environment


Sentinel Digital Desk

The voluminous report of the one-man probe panel into damage to the environment, biodiversity, wildlife, forest and ecology on account of the blowout and explosion at a gas well of Oil India Limited (OIL) at Baghjan in the Tinsukia district last year has raised pertinent questions that are critical to advance the debate on balancing ecological conservation and extraction of fossil fuel for development. The huge loss of biodiversity on account of the blowout as estimated by the probe panel should be a cause of concern to all. The probe panel headed by Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam Mahendra Kumar Yadava has revealed in his report that an estimated 55 per cent of the biodiversity of the Dibru-Saikhowa landscape has been lost while an estimated 29,000 scheduled and unscheduled animals and organisms have been killed. Besides, 1623 hectares of wetland, 523 Ha of grassland and 213 Ha of forest have also been damaged, restoration of which is going to be a huge challenge. The revelation in the inquiry report that 70 per cent of earthworms in the Motapung Maguri Beel, a wetland, has been killed, exemplifies the extent of risk of the ecological disaster that is involved in the extraction of crude oil or gas from the deep natural reserve of hydrocarbon underneath the surface in a green zone. Loss of biodiversity in the area will have an impact on residents of surrounding villages as 95 per cent of the human population in ten adjoining villages near the wetland are dependent on different bioresources and for the rearing of their livestock as brought out in the report. The probe revealing the presence of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, many of which are carcinogenic, and organic substances in high levels in the area is a matter of serious concern of the health of the human population as well as livestock reared by them. The probe panel has warned that "crop grown on contaminated soil may appear to be normal and healthy in appearance, but might be internal, accumulating harmful chemicals. Such crop on consumption would pose a serious risk of cancer amongst the consuming population" which calls for the immediate attention of the local authorities, the State government as well as all stakeholders. An awareness campaign needs to be built among the local population to educate them on getting their products tested in a laboratory before consumption. The recommendation by the committee that unless the yield is very well tested in standard laboratories for contamination of chemicals and harmful substances, and proved fully that no such chemicals are found, the crop should not be considered fit for consumption needs to be taken seriously and acted upon by authorities concerned to prevent a public health disaster. Such a laboratory must be located close to the villages so that villagers can easily get the products tested. Entrusting officials of the Agriculture Department the responsibility to collect samples and testing at the laboratories will be crucial to implementing the recommendation. While OIL managed to kill the Baghjan well after five months and abandoned it, restoration of ecology in the affected areas continues to be the prime challenge. The report states that it may take at least 10 years for the most damaged ecosystem to come back to 70-80% of the original value while the flowing river system may get restored faster. The probe panel has found the process of issuing environmental process faulty and alleged the presence of Dibru Saikhowa national park and Bherjan-Borjan-Podumoni wildlife sanctuaries within a 10-kilometre radius of the Baghjan project site. Lessons must be learnt from Baghjan tragedy how a faulty EIA process could prove to be catastrophic like Baghjan blowout and cause wanton damage to fragile ecology conservation of which is critical to addressing climate change and global warming. The inquiry committee estimating a net liability of Rs 6,800 crore over ten years for the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and OIL for footing the bill of restoration of ecology is debatable. However, restoration of the ecology will not be possible without the creation of the adequate and dedicated funds. The risk of more blowouts occurring cannot be ruled out as there are 200 more exploratory and development wells in the area surrounding Baghjan and adjacent areas. Baghjan blowout led to the release of 17.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere adding to global concern over climate change and global warming. Fixing accountability and imposition of compensation amount required for restoration of ecology will be a lesson for hydrocarbon explorers in public as well private sectors to be more careful and ensure safe drilling practice. The pragmatic approach to address the issue of balancing environment conservation and utilizing natural resources for the development of mankind is to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, and shift to electric vehicles from petrol and diesel cars, accompanied by a faster transition to climate-safe renewable energy to meet the required energy demand.

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