On May 27, 2020 Oil India Limited (OIL) natural gas well in its Bhaghjan oilfield, Assam suffered a blowout. It threw large quantities of gas at high pressure into the air. On June 9, 2020 a fire erupted at the well and spread over a distance of 5 km toward north east. The blowout has caused extensive damage to human life and the surrounding ecosystem.
The fire caused death of 2 firemen, the nearby houses were gutted and more than 3000 villagers have been evacuated. Waters in wetland have turned blue and yellow due to contamination. Endangered species such as the Gangetic Dolphins are washing ashore dead. It forces one to think about the environmental clearance given. And whether malleable laws and pliant panels helped in the process.
Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve lies at a point where three rivers, Siang, Dibang and Lohit meet to form the river Brahmaputra. Wetlands, swamps, grasslands and forests it boasts it all. It hosts of more than 300 bird species, including stronghold of the black-breasted parrotbill, one of India’s rarest bird.
Furthermore, it is also home to endangered fauna. There are also endangered Gangetic Dolphin, clouded leopards, Chinese pangolins, slow lorises and other endangered species. The status of this national park has been under the radar since 2016 but it was during the 37th meeting of the Expert Committee of the environment ministry, on September 2019 that the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park plus 21 others were listed for declaration of eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) around protected areas.
The draft proposal’s consideration was deferred on Assam’s request later it expired on August 6, 2017. The committee then made a revised proposal in 2018. It sought details of OIL’s oil-drilling sites and the impact of such drilling on water quality. The ESZ committee was informed that the protected area covered was 340 sq km. The proposed ESZ area covered 658 sq. km.
OIL’s extraction project was afoot, the Assam government considered OIL’s request. The extent of the ESZ was revised. The expert committee recommended the re-notification of final draft. The Baghjan blowout happened near the proposed region.
OIL applied for a Terms of Reference (ToR) for exploration of oil and gas in the said area after Central Empowered Committee’s (CEC) decision. The expert appraisal committee (EAC) discussed the application in its meeting. The ToR granted on August 3rd 2016 required OIL to conduct a public hearing on the proposed site of the project. A public consultation on proposed site was gathering concerns and get views of those who will be or are likely to be affected by the project.
Later OIL requested EAC to exempt it from conducting a public hearing. Reason cited was that OIL had conducted public hearings in July and August 2011 in the same district with relation to another drilling and exploration project.
The ToR was amended in February 2017, to take out the need of public hearing. Locals and conservationists raised concerns. They voiced the impact of the pipeline on Maguri Motapung wetland. Locals and NGO’s highlighted that the pipeline passes through sensitive wetland ecosystem. In 2019, the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) objected to the EAC’s recommendation of grant of environmental clearance withoutt public hearing.
In May 2019 the matter was heard but the EAC once again recommended the exemption on public hearing. This time the reason given was that the project was of ‘national importance’. And also the fact that OIL had conducted a public hearing in December 2016 in the same district. Later the ministry again asked OIL to to conduct a public hearing and then resubmit the proposal.
OIL claimed that a public hearing was not possible due to due to many political groups and NGOs with vested interests. They argued with reference to an earlier project of drilling in Khagorijan area. Where later it took OIL four years from issuance of ToR in 2012 to conduct a public hearing in 2016.
It was then, that EAC recommended the project for grant of clearance without public hearing. Various reasons cited for exemption include that local conditions have not changed since the last public hearing, economic losses to the company and country. There were also site visits by the members of a standing committee of National Board for Wildlife (SC- NBWL).
The Site Visit
It was observed in site visit by the members that OIL had initiated construction of the project before it received a clearance. OIL had approached the NBWL seeking permission to lay their crude oil pipeline. But had most of the pipe laying work already done. Except a small stretch of Dibru river and Maguri Beel. It had flouted the country’s environmental regulations disregarded ecological and livelihood concerns.
OIL insisted that the construction had been done only after the NBWL intial recommendation in 2012. In its report the committee urged the NBWL to inform the Supreme Court of the trend of absurd fait accompli situations. They had the a similar example of 800-MW Koldam hydroelectric project. It submerged 125 hectares of Himachal Pradesh’s Majathal Wildlife Sanctuary.
Most of the work on the Baghjan-Makum pipeline had already been completed though in violation. Moreover, the public exchequer had underwritten the huge expense. In this regard, recommendations were made.
These recommendations needed to be followed to complete the last stretch of pipeline. It included that the work be undertaken by OIL under the supervision of a committee. It should include local community members and environmental organisations.
Unfortunately, no meeting of the standing committee was called after the submission of the report. Later in the meeting on August 14-15, 2014 , a new NBWL constituted by the newly-elected government summarily cleared among 133 other proposals – the pipeline project of OIL.
We notice that the principles of public participation and democratic decision making were disregarded at several instances. Should a public hearing conducted in the vicinity of a particular project suffice for another project? Considering the time since the said last hearing.
Environment ministry is increasingly relying on post facto approvals. As per the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006, public hearing for category A project is mandatory. In less than a month after the EAC recommended the project, on January 16, 2020, the MoEFCC made an amendment to the EIA law.
It made all on and offshore oil and gas exploration projects ‘B2’. A B2 projects do not need public consultations. Later the MoEFCC granted environmental clearance for the drilling and testing of oil and gas at seven sites in Dibru Saikhowa.
Moreover, a week later the blowout at Bhaghjan oilfield occurred. It also relies on a ‘pollute and pay’ principle. The company also partakes in violations, and clearance is given to them on the narrow definition of National importance.
While trying to be mindful of the public money spent, it failed to adequately defend the real wealth. Hence its myriad ecosystems, the biodiversity, the wildlife it nurtured and the people it sustained was lost. The wealth was priceless and its loss utterly irrevocable.
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