Millennium Post

Checking in

Checking in

It has been some time since the last time the Baghjan Oil Field was part of the major news circuit. Though the blowout was a considerable disaster in its own right, Assam has been in the midst of even more disasters, namely the floods and the landslides caused by the heavy rain. There were some bits of news but most of them could be summarised by saying that the fire was still continuing unabated and that the authorities were largely ineffectual in handling it. Recently, however, an abrupt and optimistic piece of news came out of Baghjan. There were claims that the fire was nearing its end, that the blaze had finally been tamed. There was photographic evidence to go along, The photos showed an OIL official being rather close to what should be an absolutely unapproachable well-head. There is little fire in the pictures which adds to the impression that the Baghjan Oil Field episode was finally moving forward. This was, however, not the case. Local media outlets approached an OIL spokesperson who dismissed the rumours of the fire being completely under control. The photos, he said, were ones that were misleading as they showed an incomplete picture of the scenario. Close to the well-head, the constant water umbrella and the high-pressure gas keeping out the oxygen ensured that little to no combustion takes place. But a long-distance shot would reveal that the fire continues to burn high above. The spokesperson did assert that a lot of progress, had, in fact, been made in closing the well. Debris removal was proceeding smoothly and capping of the well was perhaps a few days away. OIL has repeatedly emphasised that the clearing of the debris was the 'hard part' of the process. It has also been reported that OIL is now in the process of digging a tunnel at the site so as to ascertain the actual scale of the damage caused by the fire. The company is also engaged in various surveys. One is an ecological survey of the surrounding area, the other is a survey for assessing the compensation that must be paid to the affected families in the region. The 'end' is near it would seem.

Needless to say, progress until this point has been patchy and riddled with complications. Days after the fire broke down and the scale of ecological damage was becoming clear, residents in the area were scared into evacuating by several unexplained seismic tremors. At a time when local residents were already complaining of headaches, burning eyes and breathing problems, the tremors did not help restore their confidence in the attempts to control the situation. OIL contacted the North East Institute of Science and Technology in order to carry out a study ascertaining the cause of the tremors and their possible relation to the blowout. For now, the causes remain 'mysterious'.

At the same time, the Assam floods and the ongoing pandemic have not made the situation any easier. OIL India stated that the rising waters of Brahmaputra have severely affected the Baghjan area and have made continued operations difficult. Additionally, equipment and personnel being brought in from across the nation and even from abroad, are being slowed down by Coronavirus precautions. Even as the fire rages and burns, there is little indication that the blowout will serve as any kind of lesson. Three proposals for environmental clearances for further oil and gas exploration are already up for consideration by Assam's State Environment Impact Assessment Authority. The steadily weakening requirement for public scrutiny in such matters may ensure any protests against these proposals will not amount to anything actionable. In fact, with the proposed 2020 edition of Environment Impact Assessment Notification, such lack of public oversight in these matters may become the norm.

Assam's complex and intertwined relationship with its fossil fuels is a much longer discussion but is an essential component to the blame game that is already underway. It is not simply a matter of negligence by OIL, there are deeper underlying issues and some of them are harder to fix as compared to corporate negligence. Why, in the first place, were such operations allowed — and continue to be allowed — in ecologically sensitive areas, sometimes close to centres of habitation is a matter of far greater concern. Still, these are questions for afterwards.

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