“We don’t know where our lives are heading.”

That was the helpless observation of a woman in Baghjan village in Assam’s Tinsukia district on June 10, the day after an oil field in the area operated by Oil India Limited burst into flames. Caused by a blowout in a gas well – an uncontrolled leak of condensate and gas – the blast resulted in condensate being sprayed over a 3-km radius, destroying homes and livestock and leaving two firefighters dead.

The blast also damaged tea plantations and eco-sensitive grasslands in the area. Of particular concern was the Maguri Matapung Beel, a wetland in the area that plays host to several migratory species of birds. It is also home to the rare Gangetic dolphins and the Golden Mahsheer.

The woman in Baghajan village, in the eye of the storm, said that all her livestock was gone. She was about to leave her home with as many belongings as she could carry but her husband, who is paralysed, was refusing to go with her.

“He is not willing to leave the house even if he dies,” she said.

The woman said that the “smell of kerosene” had been hanging in the air since May 27, when the gas leak that had occurred at well number 5 in the Baghjan oil field. On June 9, at around noon, she heard a blast. The blowout had turned into a blaze, as uncontrolled oil and gas leaks often do.

Even though her husband would not come with her, she ran for her life.

The couple had spent an anxious night because their two daughters had gone missing. “Later, we got to know they took shelter in different camps,” she said.

Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa.

The condensate is so flammable that even lighting a cigarette could spark a blast. Only the timely intervention of firefighters stopped the flames from spreading into neighbouring villages and most importantly, prevented a probable forest fire in the adjacent Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, residents said.

On June 10, nearly 5,000 people are estimated to have taken shelter in nine relief camps set up by the district administration. The Bandorkhati M.E /High School – about 10 km from Baghjan – sheltered 1,500 people, residents said. The Kordoiguri M.E/High School, 20 km from the oil field, was being used as a shelter by approximately 1,000 people, residents said. According to official estimates, around 7,000 people are currently housed across 12 relief camps.

Though Oil India Limited had made provisions for food, temporary toilets and drinking water, residents said that conditions were too cramped to allow for physical distancing and were afraid that this would facilitate the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Madam, this is no place where people can live,” said one man. “Children and women are laying down like a herd of cattle. They have given nothing, not even mattress and mosquito nets. Before we die of Covid, all of us here are going to die out of other illnesses.”

The person added: “The toilets and bathrooms are pathetic, and we do not know how clean the drinking water they are providing is.”

A scene in a relief camp. Credit: Shilpi Shikha Phukan

In a statement on Saturday, Oil India Limited said, “All relief camps are being provided with food, lodging, lighting, hygiene, toilet, water and medical requirements by OIL with the help of the district administration and local students organisations/associations.”

It added that senior officials of the company and district administration had met the villagers “to share moments with them and listen to them”.

On Sunday, Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said residents affected by the disaster will be “adequately” compensated.

For many people in the area, this was an accident foretold. They said they had been demanding the attention of the authorities since May 27, when gas began to leak out of well number 5, but the response was allegedly lackadaisical.

When the blowout did turn into a blaze as was feared, Assam’s Industry and Commerce minister, Chandramohan Patowary, seemingly played down the disaster. “Countries like Russia in the past had larger fires, this is nothing,” he said.

This triggered angry protests at which Patowary’s effigy was burnt.

Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa.

For residents, the blowout occurred as they were dealing with floods. The water from the Dibru entered the Baghjan village during the end of May, submerging many houses. “First it was the flood that hit us,” said the woman with the paralysed husband. “You see that boat? We used it for entering the compound of the house during the flood. We also use it for fishing but yesterday’s fire burnt it down.”

The eco-sensitive zone of Maguri Matapung Beel is home to a range of ethnic communities that share a cordial relationship with the wetland and the forests. Ninety five per cent of the area’s residents depend on the beel for their living: they are fisherpeople, they rear livestock or cultivate paddy, reported The Wire.

A burnt boat. Credit: Shilpi Shikha Phukan

However, the wetland also shapes their myth and rituals. The oil disaster has not only destroyed the area’s ecology but has also emerged as a threat to the culture and society of these indigenous communities.

Contaminated water and burnt fields. Credit: Diganta Rajkhowa.

Shilpi Shikha Phukan is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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