For over 100 days, Anju Borah’s family has been living in one of the classrooms of a school in Baghjan Gaon village in the northeast Indian state of Assam. The other parts of the school are also occupied by locals, as is the school next door.
Borah is among more than 3,000 people who got displaced when a natural gas well run by the government-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) caught fire on June 9. A blowout on May 27 preceded the fire.
“I don’t know if they will ever douse it,” Borah told VICE News.
It could take six to eight weeks to control the blowout, cabinet minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said last week.
Three attempts to cap and kill the well have failed. A statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office noted July 7 as the deadline to cap the well.
Borah lives on the periphery of the village in lush upper Assam, close to the Indian border with Myanmar. This resource frontier, once exploited by the British, has hydrocarbon, coal reserves, and tea gardens.
On the morning of May 27, Borah’s husband was out fishing in the wetland while she had gone looking for a cooking gas cylinder when the blast caused panic in the village.
Borah ran towards the house where her kids had taken shelter under the bed. In the rush, the family left everything behind, except some vegetables.
For two weeks, the well continued to gush out gas at an estimated 4500 PSI (pound-force per square inch).
Experts from Alert Disaster Control, a global well control firm, arrived in Baghjan Gaon on June 8 as Covid-19 related clearances led to delays.
The next day, the fountain of gas burst out in flames, spilling over several hundred metres, burning houses, trees and tea bushes, and killing two firemen.
The fire charred the courtyard of Borah’s house and burnt her husband’s boat docked at the wetland.
“He can’t go fishing now,” she said.
Anju Borah’s house is within the high security zone around the gas well, secured by concertina wire and barricades.
Sabita Borah lives at one of the barricaded entry points. The flooded courtyard of Sabihat’s house has a thin layer of oil on the surface. She fears it could catch fire on a hot day.
She was rearing silkworms and working at a tea garden when the blowout happened. Now displaced, Sabita is worried about livelihood. “I can’t go back home. How do I go out to earn a living,” she told VICE News.
Blowout damages local ecology
Baghjan Gaon is next to Dibru Saikhowa National Park, a large river island, and Maguri Motapung wetland, an important bird habitat. Together, they form an important part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot.
Between May 27 and June 9, the well spewed condensate, which settled on the water bodies. The ponds, wetland and the Lohit River which flows next to Baghjan, had a layer of oil. Tiny droplets of oil burnt the grasslands, the tea bushes and destroyed the wet paddy fields, according to locals.
“There are no fish left in Maguri,” said Sabita.
The accident has also led to an exodus of wildlife.
“The place where I would spot Marsh Babbler (a vulnerable species of bird), there was no sign of it,” said Joynal Abedin, a birder, who lives in a neighboring village.
Abedin spotted several fish, a turtle and birds who died after the blowout.
Locals recovered the carcass of an endangered dolphin from the wetland.
“It died due to inhaling polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH),” Abdul Wakid, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), told VICE News.
A WII study has found that the blowout has led to alarming levels of PAH.
“The wildlife has moved out because of sound and vibration,” said Rajendra Singh Bharti, the local divisional forest officer.
At the nearby Guijan Ghat, a picnic spot by the Lohit river, Debashish Borgohain takes tourists on short cruises to the national park. He complained of how dolphins are hard to spot now.
The area is home to 35-40 dolphins. Wakid said that their numbers have reduced by 80-90 percent in Lohit.
A preliminary assessment by India's green court has noted serious violations by OIL.
OIL’s complex relationship with locals
The locals of Baghjan have had a complex relationship with OIL since 1999 when the firm first came here for a survey.
For some, it was a development opportunity in this neglected corner of the country. Others protested foreseeing potential damage to the ecology.
“Some people thought that OIL was like Aladdin’s lamp. It would transform their lives”, Dharmendra Moran, a local who had protested the company’s entry in the village, told VICE News. “We anticipated that such a mishap would happen if OIL comes here.”
Since OIL started its operations, it funded roads, schools and prayer halls. The company also built the classroom where Borah has taken shelter.
The oil company occasionally hired local men for temporary gigs. The majority of them believes that the corporation did not do enough for them.
“Only two to three locals got full-time jobs,” said Manoj Hazarika, a local, who has worked for the firm.
“We are not against extraction of oil but you should not destroy Baghjan for that,” Manoj said.
OIL has paid INR 2.5 million (USD 34030) to 12 families each whose houses were completely damaged. The remaining were given INR 30,000 (USD 408) each as interim relief. But the villagers are demanding at least INR one million (USD 13582) for each family as compensation. They have resorted to protests and blockades.
OIL plans to divert the gas and snub the well, both techniques the company has not used before.
On Monday, September 7, Tridiv Hazarika told VICE News that OIL has started diverting the gas to its production setup.
If the plan is successful, a small part of the gas will go to the production setup and the remaining into two flaring pits.
“If we are successful, the people who are not able to go back home will be able to,” he said.
The operation would contain the blaze and reduce the noise and pressure which could help the snubbing later.
Hazarika said that the entire operation to snub could take four weeks. Snubbing could fail if there is damage at the bottom of the well. In that case, OIL may have to dig a relief well, a much longer operation.
“Biggest loss for us is the confidence of people in our operations,” Tridiv Hazarika said. But he called the blowout a small hiccup and claimed that the oil company had contained the damage.
For the locals, the real test of damage will be when winters set in and the migratory birds start coming. “If they don’t sit on the wetland, then one can be sure that it’s gone,” Abedin said.
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