Trigger warning: distressing visuals

On 9 June, an oil drilling site, managed by Oil India Limited (OIL), in Upper Assam’s Baghjan blew out and caught fire. It had been spilling gas for two whole weeks – from 27 May to be precise – before it started spewing a tall tower of flame and dark grey smoke into the clear skies.

The natural gas leakage after the first blowout had already put the fragile ecosystem of the nearby Maguri-Motapung wetlands in grave danger. With the subsequent larger blowout, the environmental and ecological threat rises manifold. The highly ecosensitive Dibru Saikhowa National Park sits right next to the drilling site.

Site of the Baghjan oil well in Upper Assam | Google Earth

Terrifying visuals of the crude oil flames engulfing the verdant fields, water bodies and houses next to the drilling site have flooded social media since the explosion.

According to preliminary estimates, some 3000 people from the nearby villages have been displaced so far. The authorities have moved most of them into makeshift schools-turned-relief camps in Jokaisuk and Rupai.

Not long after the first blowout on 27 May started, the authorities began to evacuate nearby villages. But the process was slow and many simply didn’t want to abandon their homes. Once the well burst into flames and the inferno began crawling towards the Baghjan village, residents were forced to flee on foot.

I live around eight kilometres from the drilling site, and have been visiting Baghjan frequently. Yesterday, too, I travelled to the area and spoke to some of the affected people.

The residents of Baghjan village had been spontaneously protesting the drilling since the first blowout on 27 May. Yet, the gas leak got scant attention from the media, particularly the so-called ‘national media’. Only when the leaking gas caught fire, did channels and newspapers start sending their cameras and reporters to Baghjan.

The burning oil well, seen from a distance at night | Video by author

Needless to say, the blowout – and the ensuing heat and flames – has wrecked local lives. The residents of nearby villages are largely dependent on agriculture and fishing, which have been severely hampered because of contamination of the surrounding areas.

One person from the nearby Natun Gaon said:

“We are dependent on agriculture, and the lockdown already hurt us. Now this blowout is causing us many difficulties. The fishermen are in a dilemma, because the blowout has polluted the water.”

One can see a thick blackish layer on the surface of water bodies in the nearby Maguri-Motapung beel (lake). According to Niranta Gohain, an environmentalist and tour operator who lives in Natun Gaon, the contaminating layer is made up of condensate – a low-density oil that is a byproduct of natural gas extraction, is highly flammable and explosive, and can cause severe damage to the environment, humans and animals.

The oil slick, understood to be condensate, seen on the surface of a water body near the burning well | Photo: Author

One can only imagine the drastic consequences of condensate contaminating the ecologically-sensitive and biodiverse areas around the burning drill site, including the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

The Baghjan oil well is at least two kilometres from the Natun Gaon Bridge, and the authorities are not allowing vehicles to reach the well. So, one has to approach the burning well on foot, which is the most challenging part.

As one walks towards the disaster site, large expanses of burnt agricultural fields come into view. I could also see livestock roaming around unhindered and consuming the hazardous grass. Several homes were burnt in the village, which bore a completely deserted look.

Burnt agricultural fields near the burning well in Baghjan | Photo: Author

But I saw a few villagers of Baghjan who were recently shifted to Jokaisuk relief camp, and had come to take a look at the evolving situation around the burning well and the condition of their villages. They were sitting on the road and consoling each other. 

One woman, in her early twenties, was sitting near the road with her newborn child, and gazing at the fire. She told me that she had lost her home yesterday. She said, while choosing to remain anonymous:

“We had never foreseen such an incident. Yesterday, when I was busy with my child, I suddenly heard the noise of the blast. Everyone panicked and I just ran with my child. I did not even wait for my cows and goats. We have four cows and two goats, now I have no idea where they are. We are staying in the camps, but have no idea when will we return home.” 

Also read ‘A Disastrous Oil Spill in Upper Assam’s Baghjan Threatens Local Ecology and Public Health

She broke into tears, while talking about her livestock. Another woman, who had also lost her farmland, came and consoled her. She said, also choosing to remain unnamed:

“Can you see those burnt lands? It was all green. Now I cannot look at our lands. In the coming years, we cannot grow our food. We lost our livelihood, and my husband is worried about our living. He is a fisherman. Now we have nowhere to go except the camps. We lost everything in a minute or so, and now it is difficult for us to think about the future. How long will we stay in the relief camps?”

Remains of a house razed by the searing fire | Photo: Author

She also complained about the lack of social distancing rules in the relief camps, despite the COVID-19 threat. That is also why she doesn’t want to live in the camps.

The displaced are being distributed across several schools, which are doubling up as relief camps, in Jokaisuk and Rupai. It is evident that many of them are reeling under immense psychological trauma. 

The government’s response has been very slow. One resident of Natun Gaon said that there is still no sign of local politicians or administrative authorities. He noted how the media houses have been frantically reporting since yesterday when the well exploded, but no one listened to the residents of the neighbouring villages when they were protesting earlier.

Last evening, multiple mild tremors hit the surrounding areas around the burning oil well. Video footage taken by Niranta Gohain showed locals spilling out on to the streets in the dark, refusing to return home. According to Gohain, the quake brought back memories of the devastating 1950 earthquake when their previous village sunk and they had to move to a new site.

It is not yet clear what caused the tremors. However, it is possible that the botched up extraction well, which goes down to around 3000 metres below the ground, has disturbed the underground mass, or the soaring temperatures from the fire is allowing an unusual amount of natural gas to accumulate beneath the soil. Whatever it is, tremors are always a cause for concern in Assam, a Level-5 seismic zone (the highest).

It has only been a day since the oil well lit up. According to expert prognosis, it would take around four weeks to completely douse the flames.

That is enough time for the condensate and heat to inflict severe damage – both short and long term – on flora, fauna, wetlands and human beings around the disaster site. Even the underground water table could end up contaminated, rendering the area inhospitable for years to come.

If the flames aren’t controlled soon, Assam might stand to lose one of its most biodiverse ecologies. The human cost of the disaster would be enduring too.

Prithiraj is a doctoral student in sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Featured image: Remains of a burnt house near the drilling site in Baghjan, Tinsukia, Assam | photo by author.