By all accounts, the blowout and fire at the Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district appeared to have caught Oil India Limited (OIL), which operates the facility, off guard. Though OIL has been running oil/gas wells in Upper Assam for years, it appeared woefully short of expertise to contain the damage from the blowout. The gas leak has caused extensive devastation in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung wetland and forced villagers in the neighbourhood to flee the area — over 7,000 persons are now lodged in relief camps. On Tuesday, two firefighters with OIL died, fighting the blaze.
The gas leak was first reported on May 27 from a well that was under renovation. When OIL could not contain the leak, a blowout control firm in Singapore was tapped, whose personnel, however, reached the site reportedly only on June 8. Two days later, on Tuesday, 14 days after the blowout, Baghjan 5 well caught fire. The blaze has since been contained, but it may take another four weeks for the situation to return to normal. A blowout at an OIL facility at Dikom, Dibrugarh, in 2005 could be contained only after 45 days and another accident at an ONGC facility in Sibsagar district was brought under control only after three months. The cause of the blowout at Tinsukia will be known only after a probe. But what appears already clear is that India’s second-largest hydro-carbon exploration and production PSU did not have an adequate safety and disaster management plan in place. The toll in Tinsukia may not be limited to the two brave firefighters. A biosphere reserve faces the prospect of extinction because of the accident. It may take a while to assess the whole impact on the lives and livelihoods of people living in the vicinity of the oil field — local residents have protested the delayed and tardy evacuation process.
The political economy of Upper Assam revolves around cash-rich companies like OIL — the nature of the oil and gas industry was one of the triggers of the Assam agitation four decades ago. Public safety and sensitivity to the local environment have to be an integral part of its managerial vision. In light of the Tinsukia incident, authorities need to review the running of these facilities and beef up safety measures or their very presence in the region will be increasingly questioned.
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