Baghjan blowout: NGT directs Assam government to pay aid to affected families

OIL has deposited Rs 90.8 crores with Tinsukia district administration, which may impact 2,195 affected village residents living near the blowout site at Baghjan

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Wednesday 16 August 2023
File photo of Indian Army soldiers assessing the situation at Baghjan near the blowout well.

Last week, the National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s principal bench ordered the Assam government to disburse interim compensation to the victims of Baghjan oil and gas leak that displaced close to 9,000 people in 2020 in Tinsukia district of Assam. 

The blowout left a trail of devastation by a fire from an oil and gas rig, which raged for close to five months. It also impacted the fragile ecology of the villages situated close to Dibru Saikhowa National Park. 

The Baghjan blowout is considered as the longest running oil spill in the country, where lakhs of rupees had been spent to control the fire that gutted several houses in the village, spewing crude oil and condensates on homesteads, rivers and lakes.

While the oil fire was raging, an affected villager Niranta Gohain attempted to reach out to the Gauhati High Court seeking compensation. The High Court did not entertain his petition, saying it was too early for the courts to get involved. 

Read more: Assam gas leak and fire: Yet another case of procedural lapse

Some affected village residents received one-time compensation from the project developer, Oil India Ltd (OIL), a government-owned hydrocarbon company. However, residents of at least three villages comprising of local tribes and adivasi communities alleged they were left out from the compensatory mechanism. 

Due to its proximity to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, environmental activists moved to the NGT seeking investigation on the causes of the blowout and the liability of the company towards environmental restoration.

NGT appointed a committee led by Justice (retired) BP Katakey to investigate the leak, which revealed many violations of environmental laws deeming the entire Baghjan oil and gas field as illegal in November 2020. 

The committee also submitted that one-time compensation should be given to the affected villagers from Baghjan based on the quantum of losses faced by the affected villages. Three categories were made based on which 12 families would receive Rs 25 lakh, 161 families would get Rs 15 lakh and 439 families would receive Rs 10 lakh.

Curiously, the NGT asked the panel to submit its findings prematurely and a new committee was formed to investigate the blowout, comprising OIL’s managing director. 

The petitioner in this case, Bonani Kakkar, a senior environmentalist from Kolkata, immediately challenged the decision by the then NGT chief Justice AK Goel in the Supreme Court (SC) of India. The SC stayed the constitution of the committee and formed a new one, reinstating Justice BP Katakey, whose report revealed OIL’s illegalities.   

In the meanwhile, Baghjan and Natun Rongagora, another village impacted by the blowout, also approached the SC in 2022, seeking interim compensation from OIL. This would be the first time when village residents from Assam moved the apex court on an environmental matter. 

Despite writing to the authorities regarding the survey of the villages impacted by the oil and gas leak as well as demand for the complete interim compensation, both OIL as well as the Assam government failed to meet their demands, Manoj Hazarika, a resident of Baghjan village, told the SC. 

Read more: Three OIL exploration proposals up for consideration in Assam even as Baghjan smoulders

The SC-appointed panel heard Kakkar and the affected villagers. In its interim report, the panel recommended OIL deposit Rs 2,500 crore for restoration of the fragile habitat as well as compensation to the victims.

The panel’s final report, on the other hand, scaled down the expenses and recommended Rs 1,196 crore to be deposited by OIL. Of this amount, Rs 625 crore was for livelihoods and socio-economic development and Rs 571 crore for restoring the ecological habitat. 

After the final report of the Katakey committee, the SC remitted the case back to NGT on January 23, 2023. A bench composed of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud asked the tribunal to settle all compensation claims expeditiously within two months of the order.

When the matter came up for hearing in the NGT, the then Justice AK Goel formed a nine-member committee to oversee the restoration process on March 10, 2023. Of the Rs 571 crore marked for restoration, the tribunal asked OIL to deposit Rs 200 crore only. 

The amount of Rs 625 crores for livelihood restoration as recommended by the SC-appointed committee was not considered by NGT.

For the compensation amount, the tribunal relied on a decision taken in a tripartite meeting between OIL, Tinsukia district administration of Assam and Baghjan Milanjyoti Sangha, a local organisation, in 2020.

OIL told the NGT that most of the issues related to compensation were settled in the tripartite meeting. With no other party to challenge OIL’s contention in the NGT, the tribunal ruled that there was no compensation issue. 

The affected village residents then approached the SC with a contempt petition against NGT’s decision. The apex court ourt directed the NGT to hear the victims of the Baghjan blowout. 

On August 8, 2023, the NGT principal bench headed by Justice Sheo Kumar Singh heard a miscellaneous application filed by affected villages, asking Tinsukia district administration to uphold the Supreme Court order. 

“In view of the directions issued by this Tribunal and by order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court, disbursement of the interim compensation shall be done by the District Administration after verifying the facts,” the NGT order said. 

Read more: Assam fire: MB Lal Committee recommendations not implemented for a decade

The company accepted its liability to pay a further amount of Rs 68.05 crore to 600 affected families. OIL told the NGT it would pay Rs 15 lakhs each to 161 families where damage to the houses is total and Rs 10 lakh each to 439 families where damage to the house is severe. 

However, it told the NGT that an amount of Rs 90.79 crore remains deposited to the Tinsukia district administration.

The interim compensation after the blowout incident was never paid fully to affected people, according to Vikram Rajkhowa, the legal counsel of the affected village residents. 

“Secondly, there are affected victims who were never factored in the compensatory mechanism. We have also approached the Supreme Court with a civil appeal for the final compensation,” Rajkhowa told this reporter. 

There are 2,195 affected families, which includes 612 families from Baghjan, 658 families from Natun Rongagora, 353 from Bengali Basti, 572 families from No. 1 Baghjan village. Of the 2,195 families, only 612 families received the first parcel of the interim compensation from OIL, the counsel added.

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