The Fire in Assam’s Tinsukia Will Rage On for 4 More Weeks. That’s an Environmental Catastrophe


The Fire in Assam’s Tinsukia Will Rage On for 4 More Weeks. That’s an Environmental Catastrophe

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In 2020, it seems like the disasters just don’t stop. The latest terrifying, apocalyptic scenario unfolding in India is in Assam, where a gas leak in an oil field caught fire after leaking from a plant operated by Oil India Limited (OIL) for 14 days. The gas leak escalated into a raging fire on Tuesday, and the Indian Air Force and Indian Army, along with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and Assam’s State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) have been called in, after OIL was unable to effectively stop the gas leak.

Though government forces and private companies are working hand-in-hand to rectify the situation, it is being reported that it may take up to four weeks to put out the fire and cap the gas leak.

The site of the disaster is the Baghjan oil field in Tinsukia, which is approximately 500 kilometres away from the state capital Guwahati, but also only around three kilometres away from the neighbouring Maguri Beel wetlands and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, posing a major threat to the region’s biodiversity.

The resulting blaze has led to large-scale firefighting operations, in which two firefighters employed by OIL lost their lives. Teams from the NDRF and SDRF recovered their bodies from a pond, where it is believed they sought shelter from the flames before their deaths.

The oil well at Baghjan Tinsukia developed a leak last month, after an incident called a blowout, on May 27. Though OIL sought to contain the leak and cap the escaping gas, the company was unable to do so. As a result, families living in the villages that lay in the vicinity of the well had to be evacuated to relief camps. After the gas leak turned into a raging fire yesterday, even more people were added to the number of evacuees, with NDTV reporting that 6,000 people living in a 1.5-km radius of the well had to be moved to the relief camps.

In addition to the human cost, there is also the environmental cost of the fire, as the delicate riverine ecosystem of the nearby Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri Beel wetlands will undoubtedly be adversely affected by a disaster of such large proportions. Even before the fire sparked off, the gas leak itself was harming the wildlife, with carcasses of fish and the endangered Gangetic dolphin surfacing in the water of the national park.

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, this fire and the resulting humanitarian and environmental crises are more reasons why 2020 will go down as the worst year of the millennium.