Oil survey in Assam will endanger biodiversity, affect people

By Amarjyoti Borah
Published: Wednesday 28 February 2007

-- (Credit: ABDUL SAJID)A proposed seismic survey for oil on the Brahmaputra river has Assam's citizens worried. A third of the population is dependent on the river for their livelihood--agriculture and fishing. Environmental activists also fear for the endangered river dolphins, as seismic survey explorations have shown to negatively impact cetaceans.

There have been severe protests in Assam on the seismic survey where police have used teargas to contain protesters. Environmental organisations such as Aaranyak, student bodies and United Liberation Front of Asom (ulfa) are also against the survey. Most protesters say proper environment impact assessment (eia) has not taken place.

The Guwahati High Court has been petitioned thrice against the survey. Two of the public interest petitions have been admitted.Pankaj Dutta, who filed one of them, says Oil India Limited (oil) tried to mislead the public by not conducting a hearing before calling for the tender.

A no-objection certificate was issued on February 2, 2000, by L N Bora, chairperson, Assam Pollution Control Board (apcb), without the mandatory eia or public hearing. The public learnt of the survey in 2005 when oil called for a global tender to survey the riverbed for oil. Protests erupted statewide.

After the issue came out in the open, J L Dutta, the present chairperson of apcb, issued a notice to oil , on July 10, 2006, directing them to conduct an eia and a public hearing. A public hearing was conducted at Dibrugarh on October 30, 2006, attended by various organisations and leading citizens of Assam. It was agreed upon that if biodiversity was threatened, oil would immediately stop the survey. On December 20, 2006, after months of protests, oil officials negotiated with representatives from protesting organisations. They asked oil to do another transparent eia. They also demanded that the eia team should assess the effect on the other aquatic life and on the possibility of floods.
Endangered dolphins The endangered river dolphins--over 197 dolphins were found in 2005 in Assam--stand to be severely affected.

Within the proposed seismic survey site (from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border to Nimatighat, in Jorhat district, the proposed area that will be surveyed is a 278-km stretch) 51 dolphins comprising 33 adults, 8 sub-adults and 10 calves and an encounter rate of 0.18 individual per km were recorded in 2005.

Based on this data, the proposed survey may impact 25.8 per cent of the dolphins in the Brahmaputra mainstream, where altogether 23 dolphin sub-groups are present. In the same stretch, wwf-India recorded 69 dolphins in 2002 and 73 dolphins in 1993. Besides, more than 55 per cent of Assam's population depends on the river for agriculture and another 5 per cent for fishing.

oil has said that it cannot guarantee 'zero ecological damage'. Though experts working for oil claim that they have new and safe techniques, they can't get around the fact that Brahmaputra is in a highly earthquake-prone zone.

D K Barman of the directorate of geology and mining says air gun and compressed air will be used for the survey and the vibrations caused will be less than 1.5 in the Richter scale, so there will be negligible effect on dolphins."Between 1897 and 1993 more than 1,200 earthquakes have occurred in Assam which had measured more than 4 in the Richter scale, so 1.5 in the scale will not cause any damage," he says.

Sandeep Behera of wwf's freshwater division, who attended the public hearing, says the river dolphin is at the top of the aquatic food chain, so endangering it could have a dramatic change in the aquatic ecosystem of the Brahmaputra. "As far as I know there is no technology available which can minimise the impacts. The impacts will change the distribution of the species," he says.

And although oil has launched a campaign to convince people that there is no threat to the river, the public remains unconvinced by and large.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.