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Baghjan: Stalking a Ghost Village After the Blowout

Baghjan: Stalking a Ghost Village After the Blowout

Baghjan- the aerial view of the oil field explosion

The tell-tale signs of ruin and devastation would almost freeze one’s steps as a visitor will step into Baghjan. The leaping flames of fire and gas from OIL wells completely singed the area.

The sight of the flames coloured the skies saffron and the sound of the blaze led the people  bitterly complaining of disorientation, sleepless nights and confusion.

For more than 100 days, the fire raged; a tall blaze of angry orange flame that killed the aqua animals in ponds and streams, destroyed homes and turned green farmlands into ash around the oil field .

Yes, you are right; we are talking about the fire at an Oil India Ltd well in Baghjan village of Assam’s Tinsukia district.

The blowout that began unleashing oil and natural gas uncontrollably in end of May, was finally capped after more than a month, but not before leaving a trail of trauma and devastation.

In fact, people are still under a veil of irrepressible trauma that is certain to take a much longer time to subside, feel a majority of the residents of Baghjan that has 17 oil wells and five gas wells.

“It was like hearing 100 helicopters constantly over my head,” said Manoj Hazarika who hasn’t slept properly in weeks or so.

Words of Manoj find wide echo in the village of nearly 500 residents, many of whom earned their living by fishing, tilling fields, or  working in the tea gardens close by or growing beetel nuts.

As one approaches the village, the tell-tale signs of ruin and devastation would almost freeze his steps.

Several homes have been completely gutted and about 500 hectares of land filled with caustic ash.

Kajoli Hazarika, a housewife whose home is just about 200 metres from well no 5 which caught fire, has been suffering from acute respiratory problem.

The entire area has been experiencing frequent tremors since the blowout in May,  she says.

“When the massive fire burnt a huge amount of oxygen in the periphery, an air vacuum was created. This resulted in sudden air movement and created minor local tremors,” an OIL official was quick to explain.

The scientific explanation however, fails to comfort Kajoli who recounts in vivid detail the day it all began.

It was 10:30 am on May 27; She was going about her usual household chores when a series of earthquakes and a strange, viscous rain left the village wet.

A sudden, unearthly sound led the villagers to step out of their homes to figure out the cause.

The strange rain described by locals was oil and natural gas pouring down on the houses, fields and water bodies around the oil field. Thirteen days later, it turned into an inferno.

Instead of fish, lumps of crude oil have settled in the streams flowing into the wetland, killing the fish and posing a danger to humans and animals who drink water from it.

Burned house“The tinned roof of my house, the windows and doors began to shake,” Saikia said. In a couple of days, the fish in ponds and streams were dead and ashen white.

Prakash Hazarika, 43, recalls having seen cows and goats giving birth to dead calves  and birds struggling to take flight.

A carcass of a cow at the edge of a wooded area is still there to remind the visitor of  the ravages the fire has wrought.

The strange rain described by locals was oil and natural gas pouring down on the houses, fields and water bodies around the oil field. Thirteen days later, it turned into an inferno.

Amidst utter chaos and cacophony of blasts and cries for help, Dilip Mala, a labourer, rushed from the construction site to attend to his pregnant wife Sumitra, when he saw fire engulf the surrounding areas.

Two firefighters died in the process due to burns and injuries while on duty.

But the gas well fire continued to spew flames into the air, a tall, narrow blaze that contaminated the waters and fields and changed the micro climate of the area.

The picturesque village, with tea gardens all around and the oil field in its vicinity, lies in the Maguri Motapung wetland area.

Maguri is home to numerous species of birds, including migratory birds, and animals and a critical fisheries resource for the area.

Instead of fish, lumps of crude oil have settled in the streams flowing into the wetland, killing the fish and posing a danger to humans and animals who drink water from it.

Burned house 2A bamboo hut bears mute witness to the desperation of the times. A bed and broken fishing nets are a reminder of what was once a bustling home.

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The damage to the ecosystem has been grave and largely irreparable, the ultimate impact of which will be felt in terms of ecological imbalances and lost livelihood opportunities, feels Wetlands International South Asia, an NGO dedicated to the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands in South Asia region.

The fact that this tragic mishap has taken place when the world is reeling under the impact of COVID-19, signalling our broken relationship with nature, is striking, the NGO has noted.

The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, a designated biosphere reserve on the banks of the Brahmaputra and home to tigers, wild horses and other animals, is close to the blowout site.

Hoping to pick up the pieces of their lives, the villagers have gathered around the deputy commissioner’s office in Tinsukia, about 40 kms away.

Kajoli , for instance, has received a compensation of Rs 20 lakh plus Rs 30,000 along with 11 other families whose properties were completely ravaged in the fire.

Kajoli wonders what to do with the money; is it enough for more than six acres of farmland that has been reduced to ashes ?

She is at a loss what to do with the money; buy land, make a house or find an alternative livelihood.

Prakash  only echoes her distress. “Even after compensation, what will I do? My life is here; I can sustain myself by fishing and other activities.”

“ But elsewhere, I’ll be a fish out of water; I am worried about my two children and their future.”

The Assam Pollution Control Board had issued a closure notice to the Baghjan Oil field in June on the grounds that OIL had been operating without obtaining prior consent to establish and operate from the Assam Pollution Control Board.

Too late an action to mend and compensate an irreparable damage ….

 

Photographs by UB Photos

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