On 27 May 2020, in Oil India Limited’s (OIL) Baghjan Oil field operated by John Energy Pvt. Ltd., an oil and gas leak occurred due to falling pressure systems in the oil well . It continued to leak uncontrollably for over 12 days, and on 9 June 2020, the oil well caught fire . The massive inferno at the well, with thick black smoke moving up quite a few meters high, was seen from a distance of more than 30 kilometers from the site . The fire spread rapidly, and along with destroying a lot of flora and fauna, also resulted in the death of two employees of OIL – Durlov Gogoi and Tikheswar Gohain .
Environmental activist Niranta Gohain said that four persons in and around the Baghjan village have lost their lives since the blowout – 26-year-old Petu Kishan, 55-year-old Pravin Dutta, 36-year-old Bumoni Dutta and 48-year-old Asom Gohain . At least 50 houses have also been burnt due to the leak .
The oil well (locally known as Baghjan 5) is located in close proximity to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung Beel (wetland), a haven for both resident and migratory bird species such as ruddy shelduck, bar-headed goose, falcated duck, ferruginous duck, northern pintail and Eurasian wigeon  . Many animals, birds, fishes, reptiles, including an endangered river dolphin found in the wetland, have already been killed. According to the conservationists and natives who have been involved with this national park and wetland area for years, the wetland and its surroundings are being subjected to unparalleled damage, the loss of wildlife is enormous and agrarian natives’ livelihoods are at stake because of the ongoing crisis. The environmentalists in the area suspect that the immense damage to the national park and the wetland is perhaps irreparable .
People residing in the nearby villages had to be evacuated in thousands in the time of an ongoing COVID19 pandemic, causing additional distress. According to locals, even prior to the blowout catching fire, smell of the gas from the leakage was engulfing the air . People residing as far as 10 km away from the site too could feel the foul odor and were having difficulty in breathing and irritation in their eyes. Once the fire broke out, unexplained tremors are being felt in the Baghjan area over several days . Following this, many villagers residing in the vicinity of the site have been forced to leave their homes . Officials state that more than 7,000 people were evacuated from Baghjan and are currently being housed across 12 relief camps, the residents claim that they are in conditions too cramped for any physical distancing, and in deplorable conditions causing anxiety and distress .
Tinsukia district has one of the largest presence of tea gardens in Assam. Layers of condensates now rest on the leaves of the tea plantations situated at the vicinity of the oil well making it difficult for the tea growers to encash their produces.
Hundreds of people from affected villages have been carrying out demonstrations seeking compensation and protection of biodiversity of the area . “These are not protests held by a particular organization but spontaneous reactions of the villagers from the surrounding villages,” said Niranta Gohain, an environmental activist based in Tinsukia, who was present at the protest. “They are basically demanding relief since their immediate livelihood (fishing, farming) has been snatched away post the blowout.”, further adding that the authorities have not paid attention to villages which do not fall in the immediate vicinity of the area . “Villages such as Natun Gaon, Milanpur, Hatibagh, Bebejiyaetc are located downstream [of the Dibru river] but equally affected,” he said, “No attention has been paid to them. Many have left their homes and are staying with their families in other villages.” Since the incident was reported at the Baghjan 5 well, condensate — or the residue from gas condensing after coming in contact with water — has spread up to a radius of 5km from the site, falling on tea gardens, grasslands, and crops . As per locals, the continuous rainfall has made matters worse. This destruction of the wetland is not only completely destroying the biodiversity and source of livelihood for more than ninety-five percent of the local population, but also the culture and tradition, since it shapes many of the myths and rituals of the indigenous communities residing .
Angry protests also erupted when Assam´s Industry and Commerce minister downplayed the disaster, claiming, ´Countries like Russia in the past had larger fires, this is nothing.´ as well as ´In oil, this is not the only fire. Tripura had a bigger fire than this. In 2012, we had a similar fire in Dibrugarh district´s Dikam.´  . A PIL has also been filed at the Guwahati High Court against OIL, John Energy, the Centre and the state government over the leak .
On June 5 2020, OIL issued a statement announcing Rs 30,000 to “each of the impacted families as immediate relief.” With the Tinsukia DC Bhaskar Pegu specifying that “This is for those who were in the immediate vicinity of the incident and have been directly affected,” referring to the larger Baghjan village area, where the gas well is located . This was decided at a tripartite meeting held earlier in the day by the administration with the representatives of Baghjan Gaon Milan Jyoti Yuva Sangha and OIL team led by Biswajit Roy, Director (HR&BD).
Niranta Gohain also said that the oil well was set up in 2003 without any environmental clearance or public hearing . Earlier this month, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in India had given further environmental clearance for drilling at seven locations under the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, using a technology called the extended reach pipeline (ERD), amidst the Covid-19 pandemic . He mentioned that the Dibru Saikhowa National Park is about to become the first national park in India to extract oil from under a protected area, which would be catastrophic for the biodiversity of the region . Spread over 340 square kilometers, the national park is home to 36 mammal species including tiger and dolphin, and 382 bird species .
A similar blowout had happened in 2005 at Dikom in Assam’s Dibrugarh district and it took about 45 days to control the situation . In the case of Baghjan, the situation is grim too. Former director of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), P K Borthakur, commented on 12 June 2020 that it would take at least another 20-25 days to control the condition .
This blowout, and the others before are a part of the history of conflicts in northeast India. According to Dolly Kikon, a Naga anthropologist and senior lecturer at the school of social and political science at the University of Melbourne, Australia, extractive regimes in Assam leading to ecological destruction and loss of livelihood is intricately linked with the story of the state's development and progress, influencing social relations and politics on the ground . Her research shows that the nineteenth- century discovery of oil in the eastern Himalayan foothills, along with tea plantations and other extractive industries continue to have profound impacts in the states of Assam and Nagaland, leading to everyday militarisation and violence, and adversely affecting the lives of the Naga, Ahom and adivasi communities of the region as well as migrant workers from elsewhere .