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Assam natural gas leak: Villagers carry out protest demanding compensation, protection of national park

On Friday, villagers carried out a day-long protest near the Maguri-Motapung wetland, located close to the site of the gas leak, with ‘World Environment Day 2020’-themed posters stating their demands.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Updated: June 6, 2020 6:06:45 am
Villagers protest near the Maguri-Motapung wetland. (Photo courtesy: Imon Abedin)

As a gas blowout from an Oil India Limited (OIL)-owned gas well near the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam continued for the tenth day, hundreds from affected villages carried out demonstrations seeking compensation and protection of biodiversity of the area. On Friday, villagers carried out a day-long protest near the Maguri-Motapung wetland (recognised as an Important Bird Area by the Bombay Natural History Society) located close to the site of the gas leak in Tinsukia district’s Baghjan, with ‘World Environment Day 2020’-themed posters stating their demands.

“These are not protests held by a particular organisation 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.”

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, crops etc. As per locals, the continuous rainfall has made matters worse.

On Friday, OIL issued a statement announcing Rs 30,000 to “each of the impacted families as an immediate relief.” “This is for those who were in the immediate vicinity of the incident and have been directly affected,” said Tinsukia DC Bhaskar Pegu referring to the larger Baghran 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).

After the blowout was reported last Wednesday morning, more than 1,600 families (roughly 2,500-3,000 people) were evacuated from Baghjan and settled in nearby schools. However, according to activist Gohain, the authorities have not paid attention to villages which do not fall in the immediate vicinity of the area. “Those are the people who were protesting today. Villages such as Natun Gaon, Milanpur, Hatibagh, Bebejiya etc 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.”

ALSO READ: Oil well blowout near Assam national park yet to be controlled; environmentalists fear adverse impact

Among them is 54-year-old farmer Gohin Borgohain from Notun Gaon, whose house is located about 2 km from the blowout site. “We have not been able to work in our fields because all our crops are covered with oil. The sound [from the leak] and smell [of the gas] is affecting us physically but we have not been provided any relief yet,” he said over the phone. As per Assam Pollution Control Board chairman, Y Suryanarayana, the escaping gas is a mix of profane, methane, propyl alongwith other gases.

About these areas, DC Pegu said that the Circle Officer was in touch with the villagers and that the administration will “amicably sort out their problem too.”

While two teams — from OIL and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) – have been on the job, the company is waiting for experts from Singapore to carry out the main operation to plug the blowout. As per the OIL statement on Friday, “the gas was flowing out of the well uncontrollably”. “Singapore based firm ‘M/s Alert Disaster Control’ will reach Duliajan, late evening on 7th June, 2020. The delay in their arrival is due to COVID related clearances at Singapore” said the statement from OIL.

Meanwhile, multiple committees have been formed by the administration to carry out assessment of the damage of the surrounding areas. “These departments include veterinary, forest, fishery etc,” said DC Pegu. Earlier this week, a 10-member high-level inquiry committee, led by Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam, MK Yadav, was instituted by the forest department to assess the impact on the biodiversity of the area. The blowout has led to the death of a variety of fish, and at least one endangered Gangetic dolphin at the Maguri-Motapung wetland.

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