People affected by Baghjan oil leak say they lost everything

The story of Baghjan oil leak and the suffering of the people from the people affected.

Video Credit: Mrigank Borah

An oil well from the Oil India Company (OIL) exploded in Baghjan, Assam on 27 May 2020 which resulted in the evacuation of 625 families from Baghjan village and moved to two camps. Pranjal Gogoi a resident of the village and a member of ‘Milan Jyoti Jyugo Hongo’ an organisation from the village says 6,032 people are living in camps. He says the vibrations from the oil leak started on from 27 May, ‘On 9th June there was a fire but, till now they could not control the fire.’ 15 families’ houses and fields were completely burnt down which were near the explosion, ‘They lost everything.’ They brought an expert team from Singapore, but they still couldn’t control the fire. The height of the fire is more than 300 metres, ‘People can see it from 80-90 km away. we are just tensed about when the fire will stop. ‘

‘It has been more than two months and the problems are just growing. We are still living in the camps.’ Says Pranjal. The people living together in the camps had to share communal bathrooms, ‘Our organisation demanded OIL and we got the people whatever we can, but it is still not sufficient.’ He says they are getting good food such as meat, fish and eggs but regardless people are not happy, ‘No matter what happens this is not our house and what facilities we have at home; we cannot get it here.’ They are not getting proper medical assistance, ‘There are old people, kids, pregnant people and everyone is facing problems.’ Pranjal also says there are no proper facilities to help them with COVID-19 situation, ‘They ask us to wear masks and use sanitizers but even after doing that, a lot of people visit our camps and we cannot follow the social distance guidelines due to it.’ All of them stay in one place together and they cannot completely maintain the guidelines to keep themselves safe, ‘We have kids and old people and we are scared for them, but we do not have anything to follow all the guidelines.’ He then mentions how 70 people from the camps got tested for COVID-19 but they did not get the results yet.

Pranjal says the people lost everything as the oil is everywhere, ‘Everything is covered in oil, our houses, fields and the soil.’ The soil is not fertile to grow anything as it is covered in oil and the crops and tea gardens are dead. The tea leaves that were not destroyed cannot be sold to the companies as it is covered in oil and were not accepted by them. Pranjal says the earth is constantly vibrating which is almost unbearable for people in the camps due to which people are psychologically affected. People are angry and depressed, ‘A person from our village due to all the pressure of him losing his house and the mental torment, could not handle himself and killed himself.’

Video Credit: Noni Gopal Dutta

Pranjal says that the floods have also affected them as every year 50% of the village suffers due to flood. The water from the village has few ways to exit but they have been covered as it is near the location of the explosion. So, the flood water is either stagnant or rising. ‘The houses in Baghjan has been affected. Lots of houses that were burnt are engulfed by water. Around 150 family’s houses are underwater.’ He says even if the fire is controlled, lots of families cannot return home due to the flood. Pranjal says that the camps they are living in are not affected as they are built-in higher grounds.

OIL expressed in a meeting with the organisation that if anyone wanted to go back home they can do that due to COVID-19 and social distancing but they refused as it was not completely safe yet, ‘Due to the vibrations lots of people’s houses started cracking and due to the constant vibrations nobody can go and stay there.’ Pranjal says in the meeting they said they did not have any interest in staying in camps and if they could return home they would have done it, ‘The climate there is so bad that people cannot even breathe properly as there are oil particles in the air and there is a lack of oxygen also due to the fire from the oil burning.’ OIL agreed to have all the families in camps unless the fire is under control.

Pranjal says that their organisation demanded OIL to pay 20 Lakh rupees to the people whose house burnt down in the fire and they agreed to pay it, ‘Even if they stop the fire, they still cannot go back to their houses and that’s why we demanded an advanced payment.’ They are also demanding pay for other families from the village. He says from 27 May they do not have even a single rupee as an income. They just have to be in camps as the two roads to Tinsukia market are both closed, ‘One of the roads is near the OIL factory because of which we cannot travel through that road and the other road we have a bridge which collapsed so due to this our income is zero.’ The organisation demanded that OIL pays 5,000 rupees to the families per day. But, in the meeting, they decided to pay the families 30,000 rupees in total. They still have to wait for the payment, they cannot have any further meeting as the Deputy Commissioner Bhaskar Pegu was tested positive for COVID-19.

Video Credit: Noni Gopal Dutta

‘It will take at least 30 years for the soil to be in a condition to be used for farming.’ Says Pranjal. He says the future of the young people is uncertain due to the fertility of the soil being compromised because of the oil leak. Most of the family’s main source of income in Baghjan is farming, ‘We are asking for compensation for that too from OIL.’ Pranjal says there were 465 different species of birds which would be flying around their village as it is near an eco-sensitive area but now they cannot see even one species of them. He also says there were more than 104 species of fishes in the river, which is nearby and now half of them died and the other half migrated away. Pranjal says when OIL moved to their village on 2000 they were hesitant about it, ‘We never said no to having the company but for them to just be safe and to keep the people safe. Now after 20 years this accident happened.’

Juri Borgohain an author from Assam visits the people from Baghjan village living in camps. She says since the day of the blast OIL has been providing the families with food and essentials. She says, ‘The people are still in the camps and it is indefinite when they will return back to their home because they don’t know when the fire will be controlled.’ Juri says how the people protested 12 times against OIL, the blowout and fire as they were physically and psychologically affected. The floods were also affecting some parts of the camps, ‘The temporary bathroom, dining halls, the kitchen is under the effect of flood.’ The health of the people was compromised and is getting worst day by day which is detrimental during COVID-19 according to Juri.

Picture Credit: Rahul Bose

Juri says she got in touch with National Green Tribunal which formed a committee of 8 experts, ‘The experts were asked to give reports about the damages from 27 May to the latest date. But unfortunately, due to the bad floods and COVID-19, only one expert is making the report from Baghjan.’ She says the other experts are still in Guwahati and were making the report by speaking with people on the phone, ‘There were no field study and if they make the report on a phone conversation then this will not be a good report for the people of Baghjan.’

‘The problem is not only for the people, but it has also affected the eco-sensitive area.’ Says Juri. Baghjan is 400 metres away from a highly eco-sensitive area of Assam. The animals, birds and trees are also affected due to this. She says fishes in the Dangori river which is near Baghjan village are full of toxins, ‘Lots of fishes are ingesting the oil from the river due to which they are highly poisonous when are then being sold in the Tinsukia market.’ Many fishes have also died due to it, ‘The Dangori river dolphins also died due to the oil.’

Picture Credit: Rana Chakraborty

Juri says the people from the Baghjan village have been greatly affected, ‘They are getting irritated and angry living in camps for more than two months. They are also afraid to go back home before the fire is controlled.’ Many people and NGOs have been helping them to get through it. But, the people living near Baghjan are also affected, ‘I live near Baghjan and the ground is always vibrating, and the air is polluted.’ She says the people from Baghjan are receiving compensations for their houses and lost wages but compensation for other areas depends on the report produced by the National Green Tribunal.

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