It has not escaped the notice of conscious and concerned citizens that under the banner of “war on Covid-19” some most deplorable decisions imperilling the lives and livelihoods of the people have been taken. The flurry of decisions and measures taken to control the pandemic has been used to conceal from public scrutiny unwise and enormously damaging acts by public authorities in positions of responsibility.
It is no longer under wraps that the National Board of Wild Life seized the opacity of the first phase of the lockdown to rush through a series of environmental clearances of certain questionable projects. One such clearance related to drilling for petroleum by OIL in a region of Tinsukia district of Eastern Assam.
This region is dotted with reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries, protected water bodies and other eco-sensitive areas. Indeed the entire region had been formally declared to be a “tropical rainforest”, ruling out mining and similar bio-hazardous activities.
But the present government’s bias towards unregulated exploitation of nature if it is expected to produce wealth has long begrudged such environmental restraints. Hence the PSU, OIL, was allowed to carry out oil prospecting in this sensitive region.
There is strong presumption that necessary precautions accompanying such oil prospecting had been waved aside or most slackly applied. That includes preventive measures customarily put in place to forestall a blow-out of oil and gas that remain under high pressure in the depths of the earth.
The result has been a tremendous disaster, unfolding since 27 May, when a sound like a shattering thunderclap awoke the villagers of Baghjan village near the Dihing-Patkai wild life sanctuary, where OIL had started oil prospecting.
At daybreak villagers saw with alarm a huge continuous stream of gas and oil erupting from the drilling site and soon their homes and fields were covered with a film of some sticky substance. Their household animals seemed to behave strangely and were choking. There was a strong smell of carbon in the air and they hurriedly left their homes and belongings to take shelter at a school building at some distance. Officials of OIL turned up after a few days and assured them that the disaster would be brought under control.
Two foreign experts, one from Canada and the other one from Australia, were brought in from a Singapore-based company. But in spite of repeated reassurance by officials the column of oil and gas has shown no sign of tapering off twelve days after it had emerged . Worse, today it has caught fire and is threatening to put vast forests and surrounding human habitations on fire. Now at 10pm on Tuesday, the Dibru-Saikhowa wild life region is already in flames and bound to be reduced to ashes before the night ends.
Dread and despair are writ large on faces of hapless villagers. Damage to forests and wild life is incalculable.
Since the clearance was hurried through without proper scrutiny of reports by expert bodies, and OIL was in haste to carry the prospecting out while the public was busy facing out Covid-19, the entire exercise had been a serious misadventure driven by thoughtless greed. Such are the results of the liberal turn in our economic thinking.
The oil well was no experimental well, but a full-fledged oil well (No 5.) for drilling, complete with a towering rig. It was located near Maguri Motapung wetlands, rich in aquatic life including the endangered species of the Gangetic Dolphin and with the famous Dibru-Saikhowa bio-diversity hotspot just across a small river.
The drilling had been outsourced to a private company called George Energy. The distraught local people numbering thousands have complained that the disaster management of the 60 year old OIL had only two employees, an officer and a chowkidar, comically inadequate for handling such a disaster.
Putting a cap on the eruption and controlling the fire are not the only concerns. There must be a thorough independent enquiry into causes of the mishap and just assignment of responsibility. And of course both OIL and the Government of India must bear the expense of rehabilitation and reparation. A few years back British Petroleum had been fined £25 billion and the costs of environmental restoration by the Obama administration in the United States when its careless offshore drilling caused a massive oil-spill in coastal waters of America.
The author is a socio-political commentator and cultural critic. The views are personal.