Damage to crops in Natungaon. Photo: Special arrangement.
Guwahati: Though Oil India Limited (OIL) has finally managed to divert the flow of natural gas from the well which met with a blowout on May 27 in Assam’s Baghjan, causing a raging fire and devastation in and around the area in Tinsukia district, villagers in neighbouring Natungaon have accused the public sector unit of refusing them compensation even though they were affected by the disaster.
Several Natungaon residents that The Wire spoke to said though they too had faced loss of property and means of livelihood due to the fire that began at the blowout site in neighbouring Baghjan from June 27 onwards, they have only been granted a one-time compensation of Rs 25,000-30,000. This, they said, has led them to resort to continuous protests and road blockades. The latest road blockade was on September 18.
The Wire reached out to OIL authorities on the matter, who indicated clearly that Natungaon is not eligible for further compensation as there is “no damage as such”.
“Natungaon is not eligible as there is no damage as such. Interim compensation has been given to some families from that village. There is no damage severity.”
Some Natungaon residents who were impacted by the blowout incident at OIL’s Well Number-5 at Baghjan and received only Rs 25,000 compensation have now demanded that they be included in the Category 2 of the compensation recommendations by the National Green Tribunal this past August 6.
The NGT order was based on the recommendations of an experts’ panel formed to oversee the severity of damages of people residing around the affected oil well. The panel had stated:
“An initial amount of Rs 25 Lacs will be released immediately to all the affected under category (i) whose information is already available with the Office of the District Administration. For the affected families under the category, (ii) the amount of 10 lacs will be released immediately within an outer limit of 15 days, based on the information already available with the Office of the District Administration. The compensation amount, if any already paid, shall be deducted from the aforesaid amount of interim compensation.” (sic)
Satyajit Buragohain, a local student leader who received the one-time interim compensation at Natungaon, said, “It is highly suspicious of OIL to act as if it is abandoning us. I am suspicious that maybe OIL wants to create a rift between the two affected villages of Baghjan and Natungaon. We want the affected people from Baghjan to be compensated as well. No one should be deprived. None of the victims from Natungaon have been included in any of the three categories stated by the NGT.”
He said, “This, when gas condensates have been poured into our backyards, our tea gardens, and our fields. The Dibru River divides the two villages. And we are located in the downstream of the river. Around 637 families from Natungaon have only received the Rs 25,000 interim compensation despite the ‘extensive damages’ they incurred to their farms and properties. We require further compensation as the losses are long-term.”
Interim compensation is meagre
Mahesh Hatibarua has a four-bigha tea garden at Natungaon. He said that officials from the district administration visited him to check the extent of damage affecting his property soon after the fire broke out. They told him the tea leaves were still green and therefore there was no damage.
“But three months later, my tea garden which I have cultivated for the past 15 years is totally destroyed. I doubt that tea will ever grow again. The Rs 25,000 one-time interim compensation is meagre as my running and maintenance cost for the garden is equivalent to that compensation amount,” he said.
On September 12, he met the Tinsukia deputy commissioner about the matter. “I requested him to visit my damaged tea garden and help chalk out a plan to what can be done. I am still running around. Meanwhile, my brother, to help run our family, has started a small tea shop. We demand that victims like my family and others be included under Category 2 of the NGT compensation recommendations. This is our last resort,” he said.
“OIL in a report to the NGT stated that Natungaon is not affected. But the NGT rejected this aspect of the report. It should also be reported that OIL has no say in this issue, and it is only the district administration that will decide the matter,” said Niranta Gohain.
Gohain runs Wave Ecotourism (WE), an entrepreneurial tourism venture in the area and is also the general secretary of a local organisation named Bahankhyam Unnayan Shakti taking up the rights of the victims of the Baghjan fire.
“The attempt to create division between the two villages was present since the beginning. The scale of damage in Baghjan is within the 500 metres radius. Since Natungaon is located downstream, the damage is more within the three kilometres radius of the disaster site,” he said, adding, “We won’t let our protest die out; it will continue, and OIL should feel wary about it.”
OIL, in a response to the interim report of the NGT (prepared by the experts’ panel), had, though, addressed him Niranta Gohain as a “so-called environmentalist”. It also called Gohain’s statement in the interim report, not ‘credible’.
On September 18, protestors blocked a road leading to an oil rig near Limbuguri Tea Estate near Natungaon. Later in the day, a public meeting was organised near Natungaon where the affected people had an interaction with the new deputy commissioner Diganta Saikia.
Union minister’s statements in parliament
This past September 14, Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan told parliament that “compensation amount of Rs 25 lakh each for 12 families have been handed over” by OIL at the local DC’s office. The minister, in response to an unstarred question in the Lok Sabha stated that the Rs 25 lakh compensation to these families were granted as per category 1 “whose houses have been completely gutted by fire” as per the direction of the NGT.
The minister was most likely referring to families in the Baghjan area. Prior to the NGT order, on July 19, the then DC, Bhaskar Pegu, had reportedly handed over Rs 20 lakh to 11 affected families of Baghjan.
When asked about the Rs 25 lakh figure as against the Rs 20 lakh that was handed over to some families, the OIL spokesperson told The Wire, “Coming to the Union minister’s comment on Rs 25 lakh being paid to families as per category 1 (of the NGT order), I am not sure about such amount being paid. I have to check for myself as I am not sure. The DC office paid Rs 20 lakh. Maybe, he was referring to the pending dues and making a reference to the NGT verdict. Maybe, in-between, the government may have given Rs 5 lakh. I do not know. Let me check.”
As against the minister’s written statement to Lok Sabha that Rs 10,93,50,500 has been deposited with the district administration for the compensation, the OIL spokesperson said, “The range of the impact of the blowout incident varies. Till now, OIL has released an amount of Rs 11.20 crores.”
“An amount of Rs 9 crore to around 3,000 families have been dispensed to the DC office for interim relief. Also, Rs 20 lakh each to 11 families who lost their houses due to the fire even after not waiting for a report from the DC office.”
Like the minister had stated, the spokesperson too said that “the DC office has assessed 2,756 families who had faced the impact of the blowout. The state machinery is compiling a report. It is an assessment of the total number of people and their addresses. It has to achieve a massive target. So, we are still waiting for the assessment part. It takes time and the government is doing it.”
It is not just the confusion over eligibility of the compensation that is creating dissatisfaction among the locals. The NGT order had also recommended, “An immediate health insurance policy including COVID 19 will be made available by OIL to all affected individuals and families by the Well Baghjan-5 blowout and explosion and who are presently taking shelter in the relief camps within 7 days from the passing of the order by the Hon’ble NGT for interim compensation.”
The Wire asked the OIL spokesperson whether this was done. “We are waiting for the final report of the NGT and also for the final assessment report from the district administration. Everything will depend on the details from the assessment report,” said the spokesperson.
Dhamen Moran, a victim from the Baghjan area who incurred losses both in his house and the farm field because of the condensate gas seeping into his backyard, said, “So far, there is no mention of granting us health insurance from the OIL.”