No Hashtag Campaigns, No Political Outrage for the 172-Day Fire in Assam’s Baghjan

Social Commentary

No Hashtag Campaigns, No Political Outrage for the 172-Day Fire in Assam’s Baghjan

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

No hashtag campaigns, no prime time debates, no political outrage. The 172-day fire that you probably haven’t heard of, has finally been put out.

The fire at Oil India Limited gas well in Baghjan, Assam was finally put off on Sunday after six months of continuous blazing after an accident in late May.

The gas well in the oil field had an uncontrolled gas emission on May 27 during a maintenance operation. In June, the well caught fire, killing two firefighters, while an engineer died on the site in September following electrocution. The company brought in experts from Singapore, the US and Canada to contain the fire and the well was blocked off by a process called snubbing, in which the well was laced with a cement-laced chemical mud.

“There is no pressure in the well now and the same will be observed for 24 hours to check if there is any amount of gas migration and pressure build up. Further operation to abandon the well is in progress,” Oil India spokesman Tridiv Hazarika told news agency AFP.

The oil blowout destroyed local tea gardens and water bodies in Assam, triggering protests by local residents. In June, the National Green Tribunal had directed Oil India Limited to pay an interim fine of Rs 25 crore for the damage caused to public health and wildlife due to the fire.

The NGT panel had stated that  OIL was operating well at Baghjan without the required official permissions at the time of the incident. In its progress report filed on November 3, the committee headed by retired Gauhati High Court judge Brojendra Prasad Katakey also recommended directions to be issued to Pollution Control Board, Assam to take legal action against OIL and its officials for violation of mandatory requirements.

The committee’s report also mentioned that despite Supreme Court orders, OIL did not carry out a biodiversity impact assessment study for the Baghjan well, which is close to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. There have been apprehensions of damage to ecology due to the blowout and fire.

Apart from the loss of three lives, a dozen houses located close to the well were gutted in the fire and 40 others partially damaged. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and stay in temporary camps for months while efforts were on to control the blaze.

The administration must now ensure that punitive action is taken against the company for negligence and against those officers in government, who looked the other way. People who lost their family members and houses must be adequately compensated. The damage to the environment may be difficult to reverse but we must be vigilant to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

These have been truly dark times for the people of Baghjan, and one that didn’t find much mention in India’s mainstream conversations, whether on TV or online.