How Assam’s Baghjan gas well blowout impacted lives, livelihoods and the environment

On 9 June, a gas well in the Baghjan oil field in Assam's Tinsukia district caught fire. Partha Sarothi Das / AP Photo
16 October, 2020

On 27 May, a gas well in the Baghjan oil field, in Assam’s Tinsukia district, had a blowout, which refers to an uncontrollable gas leak. The well in question is operated by the state-owned Oil India Limited. Within two weeks, on 9 June, the well caught fire.

To date, three OIL employees have lost their lives while working on the site. On 10 June, OIL tweeted that two firefighters working with the company—Durlov Gogoi and Tikheshwar Gohain—had died “in the line of duty.” On 9 September, Arnab Kishore Bordoloi, an electrical engineer at OIL was electrocuted at the Baghjan well site. According to a PTI report, Bordoloi was working with high voltage cables. The same day, OIL tweeted, “Arnab Kishore Bordoloi, a dynamic young electrical engineer of OIL while working with some equipment at Baghjan Blowout well site, suddenly fell down and lost consciousness.” The tweet added, “He was provided emergency health care by doctor at site and was taken to AMC where he was declared dead,” referring to the Assam Medical College.

Arnab’s family has raised questions about his death. “They didn’t send a senior officer with him,” Arnab’s sister, Ananya, told me. She said that Arnab had only two years of experience, which was not enough to send him to what she believed was a danger zone at the site. 

Ananya told me that Arnab was selected to be part of the OIL team from a recruitment program at the Jorhat engineering college, in August 2018. “He surprised the family by calling us at midnight and telling us that he was one of the 14 who were selected from his college, we were all very excited,” she said.

On 12 September, Arnab’s family wrote a letter to Sushil Chandra Mishra, the chairman and managing director of OIL, seeking clarifications on the circumstances of Arnab’s death and asking six specific questions. Among them, the family sought to know what training Arnab had received to work in such dangerous conditions, if there was any standard operating procedure and if he was briefed about safety guidelines before he was sent to the site.

 “If it was an accident, we do not want the same for any young member of another family,” the letter, signed by Bijit Bordoloi, Arnab’s father, stated. “As a company with huge financial resources, we … do not expect the company to have such low standards of safety that an engineer working on the site gets electrocuted.” The family said they are ready to go forward with “all might and force” if OIL is not transparent about the incident.

According to Ananya, senior engineers who visited Arnab’s home to give the official information of his death told the family that experienced engineers are normally sent to such a site. This further raised doubts for the family about why the company would send an engineer with minimal experience. “They sent three people with him, one helper and two technicians who were all junior to my brother,” Ananya said. “Even a 30-years experienced engineer did not go to that site, so why did they send an inexperienced engineer?”

The family also has suspicions concerning his mobile, which they said was found at the site. In the letter to OIL, Bijit wrote, “He had submitted his phone at the entry gate and his family was aware of it that he would not have his phone with him. Under what circumstances did the phone reach the site? How did the phone get damaged or burnt? Why was the phone not handed over to the family in the first place? We have the right to all his belongings.”

Ananya also questioned how Arnab’s phone was found on the site. “The engineers or staff working at Baghjan are not allowed to keep their mobiles with them,” she said. Referring to the time stamp of when Arnab last appeared on WhatsApp, she added, “The incident took place at 1:30 and last seen is 1:19. My brother is a very sincere and kind person, he doesn't do any wrong and it raises the question if someone has forced him. Who was instructing him?”  Ananya told me they were handed his mobile phone only two days after his death.

OIL responded to the family’s letter but according to Ananya, “The response was just a message of condolence, they provided no answers to our questions.” She continued, “These answers are not just important from my brother’s point of view but for the larger good of everyone. OIL has said that enquiries are going on. But we don't know when we will get a report.” In its letter responding to the family, OIL stated, “OIL is committed to take action against any lapse in this incident, once the detailed Inquiry Report is available.”

Rishikesh Durah, Arnab’s cousin brother, also asked questions about safety protocol. “My main questions are regarding the SOP,” he said, referring to the standard operation procedure. “The safety standards, the safety suit. Howcome the accident happened even after these so called precautions?”

I spoke to Tridiv Hazarika, the OIL spokesperson, regarding the questions raised by Arnab’s family. “Bordoloi was not an inexperienced engineer as he has been working for quite some time,” he said. “The job was not extraordinary, it was very routine.” Hazarika added that inquiries are ongoing to find out if the electrocution was due to a human error or a machine failure.

In addition to the lives lost, the Baghjan well blowout and subsequent fire has also hurt the livelihoods of locals in the surrounding areas and damaged the environment. According to an NDTV report, at least 3,000 people in a 1.5-kilometre radius from the well were shifted to relief camps.

In the aftermath of the blowout and the fire, the National Green Tribunal constituted a Committee of Experts headed by Justice Brojendra Prasad Katakey, a former judge of the Guwahati High Court, to assess the environmental impact of the disaster. The committee submitted its preliminary report on 24 June. 

The committee also recommended that OIL compensate the local residents in three categories—Rs 25 lakh for families whose houses were completely damaged, Rs 10 lakh for severely damaged houses and Rs 2.5 lakh for moderately damaged houses.

However, residents of villages impacted by the blowout say that they are yet to receive the full compensation. Since the blowout, villagers have protested by blocking roads. A group called the Baghjan Gaon Yuba Milanjyoti Sangha, or BGYMS, was formed to spearhead the protest and bring people together under a collective banner.

Dhamen Moran, a resident of Baghjan village and an advisor to the BGYMS, said he and other villagers received a one-time compensation of Rs 30,000 but have not heard anything else since. Moran said his agricultural field is located close to the well site and is completely damaged. “The effects of the Baghjan oil blast are becoming more evident with time,” he said. “The condensate from the well has mixed with the soil so there is no hope for us to sustain our agricultural land.”

Moran added that OIL’s relief efforts were inadequate in the face of what he had lost. “OIL has done some efforts for food and water but it is not enough,” he said. “Our businesses are down, our fields are not fit for farming. We have lost our sources of income. Whatever we had is lost. OIL could not repay all the loss it has caused us.” 

On questions regarding compensation, Hazarika told me that OIL cannot provide compensation until the Tinsukia district administration submits a full assessment report. He said the district administration has set up a committee to assess property loss, according to which, OIL will deposit the compensation amount.

On 14 September, in a response to a question in the Lok Sabha, Dharmendra Pradhan, the union petroleum minister, said that 2,576 families had been identified for compensation till 8 September. He added that OIL had deposited Rs 10,93,50,500 to the district administration for a one-time compensation of Rs 30,000 each to 3,645 affected families. The answer did not clarify why there were two separate figures for the number of affected families.

Niranta Gohain, who runs an entrepreneurial tourism venture called Wave Eco Tourism, has been one of the key persons pushing the government and OIL towards ensuring fair compensation for the affected families. He said he was on his way home from a meeting with the district deputy collector and OIL representatives to discuss the damage from the blowout when he saw the fire erupt. “It felt like a piece of me was burning,” Gohain said.  Gohain is a resident of Natun-Rangagora, a periphery village of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. In the past, he has led movements to conserve the ecology of the park, which is one of 18 biosphere reserves in the country. The Dibru-Saikhowa is located just one kilometre from the blowout site. Gohain believes the biosphere has been put at risk. He said that the gas leak had contaminated the river water that flows into the park.

Another rich ecological area, the Maguri-Motapung beel wetland, located in the vicinity of the gas well, has also been impacted by the blowout. According to a 2016 study titled Ecosystem Service Changes and Livelihood Impacts in the Maguri-Motapung Wetlands of Assam, it is home to 36 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 105 species of butterflies, 108 species of fish and the critically endangered Gangetic River Dolphin. One dolphin was found dead after the gas leak.

The study also found that 40 percent of the households in the six villages surrounding the wetland, including Bagjhan, were directly dependent on the wetlands for their livelihood. The wetlands had an estimated 20,000 visitors per year, which generated employment for the locals.

“Ground reports from local stakeholders suggest that the incident has severely affected a radius of 6 kms from the Baghjan Oil Well No. 5,” the NGT-appointed committee’s preliminary report said. “Further, areas within the radius of 6-10 kms have been moderately affected. Reports from local individuals indicate that the smell of gas has engulfed the entire landscape and was also felt from around 10 km away from the site of the explosion. Expert who have visited the site … indicate that the condensate and the spill affected all forms of life within a 2km radius … all the phytoplankton and zooplankton were directly affected while there were coatings of oil film on plant life, water bodies, agricultural fields, gardens and manmade structures.” The report added that the subsequent explosion and fire led to “immense damage to the local population and their homes, apart from small tea gardens which were completely burnt down.”

The NGT report also noted that the health of people residing in neighbouring villages was adversely affected. “Several representations received from the local communities in and around the site of incident have revealed complaints of difficulty in breathing and the ambient air being laden within toxic and heavy fumes,” the report said. Referring to the Wildlife Institute of India, it continued, “Even scientific teams from institutions such as the WII, who have visited the site, had reported such experiences.”

Further noting the impact of the blowout on living conditions and livelihoods, the report said, “Local residents, especially of villages located close to the site of incident have been suffering because of contamination of the ground water. It has been stated before the Committee, that tube-wells used by villagers were emanating foul smelling water which makes it unusable.” The report found that several villages that are predominantly dependent on fishing from the nearby water bodies, such as the Maguri-Motapung wetland, have been deprived of their livelihood because of the condensate on the water surface “which has caused widespread damage to the aquatic ecosystem and also contaminated the water.”

Commenting on the blowout’s ecological impact, the report said, “High mortality has been reported among fishes, insects, herpetofauna and insects including the decline of Gangetic River Dolphin Population in the area.” Referring to a WII study, it added, “In the opinion of the WII, the Maguri-Motapung wetland is the worst affected with large scale death of aquatic fauna.”

The committee of experts also looked into the possible reasons of the blowout and procedural lapses. “There was deficiency in proper planning of critical operations. There was a clear mismatch between Planning and its Execution at site and deviations from the Standard Operating Procedure,” the report said. “There were serious deficiencies of proper level of supervision of critical operation at well site both from the Contractor as well as from OIL.”

To further assess the damage, the Baghjan community awaits the final report from the NGT, which is expected in November. On plans for resuming operations at the Baghjan site, Hazarika told me, “We are a 140-year-old legacy, we will talk to the communities. We will get into a compensation package and discuss. Once people are convinced then only we will resume operations. We are concerned about the confidence of the people. In terms of loss, we will take care later.”