Baghjan inferno: OIL brass should be held responsible

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The blowout and fire at the Baghjan oil field in Assam’s Tinsukia district has not only caused economic losses, which are yet to be estimated but serious environmental damage too. Inhabitants of neighbouring villages have fled and many have been evacuated. About 7000 people have been put up in relief camps. Two firefighters have lost their lives. The oil well is close to the Dibru Saikhowa national park and the Maguri-Motapung wetlands. According to reports, the wetlands, which host a number of bird and fish species, have been completely destroyed. A large number of fish, dolphins and birds have already been found dead. The national park will be affected by the after-effects of the blowout and fire with chemicals settling in on it. It is estimated that it will take years for the park and wetlands to be restored to their earlier state. Lack of necessary oversight of the operations and negligence by officials have been cited as reasons for the occurrence of the mishap and its mismanagement. The gas leak occurred in a well on May 27. It is surprising that the Oil India Limited (OIL) did not have the technical expertise to handle the leak. It sought the help of foreign experts but by the time they arrived, it was too late. While containment efforts were going on, the Baghjan well caught fire. Though it has now been brought under control, it will take some weeks for full restoration of normalcy. There have been similar mishaps in the past at other locations in Assam where oil exploration has been actively done for decades. Some of them were brought under control only after weeks and they too caused much damage and losses. Interestingly, OIL did not have the required technical expertise to handle the blowout and the fire. And the incident has also brought to light the ill preparedness of OIL in handling such cases in future. This incident must work as an eye opener for the authorities to not repeat such incidents again. What now remains to be seen is the fact that how OIL and the authorities cope up with the post-incident management. The cause of the mishap has not been determined yet and will be known after the investigation which is underway. Two officials have been suspended for negligence and dereliction of duty. While individual responsibility has to be fixed for the mishap, the entire OIL establishment should be held accountable for the environmental damage. The danger of locating industrial units close to environmentally sensitive areas without safeguards has again been underlined by the mishap. Even when mishaps happen and cause environmental damage, no compensation is usually paid. The processes and procedures for that are complicated and often do not work. In many cases, compensation is not possible, as in the case of the national park and the wetlands. However, compensation or not the OIL must take onus and work for rebuilding the surroundings. In such acts of manmade disaster, it is always the nature that pays the ultimate price. On the other hand, the Baghjan incident should also work as an eye opener for the government for letting industrial units in such proximity to ecological hot spots.

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