The disaster that happened in Baghjan Oil Well No 5 under Oil India Ltd in Tinsukia district in the vicinity of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Assam with the leakage of gas condensate followed acid rain from 27/5/20 and final blow out on 9/6/2020 followed by a raging firestorm, the fire is still continuing today bringing complete destruction to one of the fragile 25 bio-diverse hotspots of the world.
There are efforts to put out the fire that is raging there, but till now it is seen that the Oil India Ltd (OIL) is unable to control it. On the other hand, there is destruction of life, livestock, wild life habitat and property of the people of Baghjan which is an irreparable loss. The aftermath of this disaster has caught the attention of many environmentalist, citizens and students; and lot of questions were raised to fix responsibility for this disaster. But the saddest part is that the disaster happened in one of the 25 bio-diverse hotspots of the world and the loss is not only to the people of Baghjan but to our planet.
Such disasters have been happening all over the world, for e.g., the oil spill in the coast of Mauritius, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Mexico and USA because of British Petroleum leading to class action suits and resultant compensation made and also deals struck. The Forest fires in Siberia, Amazon and the breakup of our very own Tropical Wetland Forest of Dehing Patkai forest in Digboi. These disasters are working as catalyst in climate change and will eventually lead to the final destruction of human species. Nature will always balance itself to survive and in that process we — humans — may get wiped out. The present pandemic of COVID-19 may be one of the ways of Nature starting its balancing act.
The Dibru Forest was declared as a 'Reserve Forest' in 1890 and the additional areas were added in 1920 . In 1929, the Saikhowa Forest was declared as a 'Reserve Forest'; and again in 1933 more areas were added to the 'Dibru Reserve Forest'. In 1986, a total area of 650 sq km of the Dibru Saikhowa Reserve Forest was preliminarily declared as a 'Wildlife Sanctuary' and finally in 1995, an arae of 340 sq. km was declared as the core area of the 'Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary'. In 1997, the Wildlife Sanctuary was declared as a 'Bio-Sphere Reserve'; and in 1999, the 'Dibru-Saikhowa Reserve' was declared as a 'National Park'.
The Wildlife Sanctuary was originally created to conserve the 'White-wing Wood Duck' — the State Bird of Assam among many other species of flora and fauna. The 'Wildlife Conservation Strategy-2002' provided for 10-km zone and in some cases beyond the 10-km zone as the 'Eco-Sensitive Zone' (ESZ).
The Notification of 9/2/11 of the 'Ministry of Forest Environment and Climate Change' categorised three zones under the 'Eco-Sensitive Zone': (i) Prohibited; (ii) Restricted; (iii) Permissible with safeguards; and Industries creating pollution are totally prohibited. But later on, the concept of ESZ being limited to the 10-km zone was diluted and made case specific — meaning thereby that the ESZ varied according to location and sites involved. However, the Supreme Court held that mining activities are prohibited within 1 km of the 'Prohibited Areas' or 'ESZ'. The main purpose of creation of the ESZ is to create a buffer zone or shock absorbers to protect the wildlife habitat, Wildlife Sanctuary and National Parks from ill effects of anthropogenic activities and give impetus to eco-centric activities.
As per guidelines of the Union Government Environment Ministry in 2011, the ESZ were to be defined and the State Governments take a call in delineating the ESZ boundaries which are then cleared and notified by the Central Government.
Now there was a massive expansion plans worth Rs 7,000 crores of OIL which involved drilling of 260 new oil wells in the Tinsukia district alone where the present disaster of Baghjan happened. The Environment clearance to seven hydrocarbon oil wells was given on 11/5/20 in and around the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. But how could this clearance happen? And, if one looks into the events preceding this environment clearance, it depicts a chequered history of how the ESZ was tampered with to legalise the whole process.
The first draft notification of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park was published in April 2016 which proposed an ESZ of 9.44 km all around the boundary of the National Park which is basically an uninhabited island. This draft notification was submitted before the expert committee on ESZ for consideration. But the committee in its 24th meeting, dated 27th and 28th February 2017, found exploratory oil drilling sites already existing; and therefore sent back the proposal back to the State government with instructions to review it. But by the time the expert committee for ESZ held its 37th meeting in September 2019, the State government already came up with an entirely new proposal revising the earlier proposal to keep out the drilling sites away from the ESZ. Thus in some areas, the ESZ was reduced to almost less than a km thereby diluting the whole concept of ESZ or the guidelines framed to demarcate the ESZ. Further, it paved the way for further exploration of gas and oil which otherwise would have been under the ESZ of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and no environment clearance could have been issued for such exploration and further stop the drilling sites which existed there.
The Final Gazette Notification was passed on 28th January 2020; and thereafter, the Environment Clearance was issued in 11th May 2020 for seven hydrocarbon oil wells in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park with the 'Extended Reach Drilling' (ERD) technology which meant drilling will be from outside the National Park i.e., drill down about 4000 meters and then horizontally go about 1-1.5 km under the National Park to take out the oil.
There is still a forest clearance due before expansion plans starts to function in respect of extended reach drilling and this is only silver lining of the dark clouds gathering over the DIbru Saikhowa National Park.
Thus, in a nutshell, had the Baghjan blowout not happened and had the disaster not taken place, so many questions would not have arisen. But even after the disaster struck in Baghjan, there seems to be no proper plan for 'Environment Mitigation' although it existed in the paper work.
The 'Pollution Control Board' ought to have swung into action to clean up the polluted area but very less action has been seen from this agency of the government. The 'Environment Clearance' granted by the government is under challenge before the Gauhati High Court and it is sub-judice; there are also petitions filed in the 'National Green Tribunal' for proper compensation to the affected public.
The State government has also instituted an inquiry commission to file a fact-finding report. But whatever said and done, the bottom line is that a pristine ecological and bio-diverse hotspot has been destroyed. Due action of the State at various levels — in as much as the State being the trustee of its citizens' welfare which includes protection of the environment — failed to adhere to the precautionary principles in dealing with environment issues.
About the author: Mrinmoy Khataniar, a practising lawyer since 1998 is an advocate at the Gauhati High Court. He has challenged the awarding of the seven hydrocarbon oil wells of OIL in close proximity to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park at the Gauhati High Court.