The NGT’s observation that the Oil India Limited cannot shirk responsibility for the Baghjan blowout and that it failed to take adequate safety precautions is significant on several counts. It has also asked the Central Government-appointed committee to lay down a roadmap for ensuring compliance of safety protocols by all similar installations. The Baghjan disaster has wreaked havoc with the pristine ecosystem of the nearby Maguri Motapung wetland besides adversely affecting the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. Equally staggering have been the damages caused to cropland and human settlements. That an outsourced firm, John Energy Private Limited, had been operating the Baghjan well in no way dilutes the OIL’s responsibility on the matter. The OIL, among other things, failed to keep an eye on the outsourced firm’s functioning. This was all the more imperative, given the location of the well in close proximity to a biodiversity hotspot, cropland and human habitation. Indeed, the Baghjan disaster should be the much-needed wake-up call for oil majors as well as the Government to have a thorough review of the safety mechanism to be put in and around their operating sites. Earlier the tribunal had also formed a panel to look into the various aspects of the disaster and its fallouts including the damage caused to the natural environment. The observations and the recommendations of the panel need to be taken seriously by the Government and the OIL.
The Baghjan disaster brings to the fore several critical issues concerning the operation of oil and gas installations, especially those pertaining to their routine maintenance. The incident apparently took place during a routine maintenance exercise and according to experts, it is possible to prevent such blowouts by reading the early signs ahead of a huge surge in gas flow. Also apparent is the fact that the outsourced firm had been rather casual in its maintenance exercise. It is precisely in view of the catastrophic environmental damages that can emanate from mining or drilling activities that a 10-km eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) is to be ideally maintained from protected forests within which no industrial or polluting activities are allowed under the law. But the State Government chose to tweak such norms to accommodate the oil lobby’s interests. Conservationists maintain that it would take a very long time to get the wetland ecosystem restored to its earlier pristine status. The recent happenings in the Dehing Patkai rainforests and Baghjan make it amply clear that environmental concerns have been sacrificed at the altar of so-called development. Both the Centre and the State Government need to have a rethink on its development policy and must refrain from allowing environmentally damaging activities such as drilling and mining near biodiversity-rich areas and wildlife habitats. There can be no two opinions about the urgency to protect our little remaining flora and fauna from industrial onslaught. A sound natural environment is inextricably linked to having quality life and these biodiversity-rich areas cannot be recreated once those are lost to polluting industries.