On May 27, an oil well in Assam’s Tinsukia district began to leak gas and condensate. The “blowout” eventually sparked a fire on June 9, killing two firemen, displacing over 10,000 local residents, devastating flora and fauna in the surrounding areas, and sparking unprecedented public anger against Oil India Limited, the central government-owned company which drills oil in Assam.

Facing a barrage of local protests, the company has announced plans to cap the well – that is, seal and kill it off – by this weekend.

But documents submitted to the Union environment ministry reveal that the company has massive expansion plans worth Rs 7,000 crore, which would involve drilling around 260 new wells, in Tinsukia district alone. In other words, the very area where the disaster occurred.

Two expansion projects have already been cleared by the Union environment ministry in April and May. The company is seeking clearances for the remaining projects.

Significantly, the Union environment ministry itself paved the way for these clearances when it asked the state government in 2017 to reconsider the proposed boundaries of the eco-sensitive zone around the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. The park is one of the two ecologically fragile areas flanking the Baghjan oil field where the explosion occurred.

Guidelines framed by the Union environment ministry in 2011 describe eco-sensitive zones as “shock absorbers” around national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and protected areas. Mining and polluting industries are prohibited within these buffer zones, which could extend up to 10 kilometres from the boundaries of national parks. State governments are supposed to delineate the boundaries of these zones, which are cleared and notified by the Centre.

On the suggestion of the Union environment ministry, Assam government amended its proposal, cutting down the eco-sensitive zone on the southern boundary of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park to zero kilometres. The zone was notified by the Centre in January.

This simple tweak has not only paved the way for the two new projects, it has also set a precedent for more expansion plans.

Questions emailed by Scroll.in to the Union environment ministry have not been answered. This story will be updated if the ministry responds.

Eroding the periphery

The first draft notification for the Dibru Saikhowa National Park’s eco-sensitive zone, published by the Union environment ministry on April 8, 2016, had proposed an eco-sensitive zone of 9.144 kilometres all along the boundary of the park. It noted that the park, spread over an uninhabited island of 340 sq km, was rich in biodiversity: 36 species of mammals, 106 species of fish, 104 species of butterflies. It was home to several endangered species, elephants and tigers moved through it.

The draft notification was submitted to the ministry’s expert committee on eco-sensitive zones for consideration. In its 24th meeting, held on February 27-28, 2017, the committee noted the presence of oil drilling sites in the vicinity and sent back the proposal to the state government with instructions that it revisit the idea.

By the time the committee held its 37th meeting in September 2019, the state government had submitted a new proposal revising the extent of the eco-sensitive zone down to 658.25 square kilometres. In some parts of the boundary it would be 8.7 kilometres. In others, in deference to Oil India’s objections, it would be zero kilometres.

“Since the oil drilling sites were already existing wherein extraction was an ongoing activity, State Govt considered the request of OIL and revised the extent,” say the minutes of the 37th expert committee meeting, quoting MK Yadava, the Assam government’s representative. Yadava is now Assam’s acting chief wildlife warden.

The state government cited ongoing exploration as the reason for tapering off the eco-sensitive zone. But, in effect, it paved the way for further expansion in what would have been eco-sensitive zones.

The final gazette notification for the park’s eco-sensitive zone was published by the Union environment ministry on January 28, 2020. It said “zero extents of the eco-sensitive zone were justified” because of the “existence of crude oil and natural gas in the immediate vicinity of the southern side of the national park boundary”.

Criticising the decision, NK Vasu, former chief wildlife warden of Assam, said eco-sensitive zones should not be cut short merely because of oil exploration. “Development activities can’t be a concern of the ESZ,” he said. “The ESZ is designed keeping in mind the interests of the ecology of the area.”

The green signal

Four months after the eco-sensitive zone was whittled down, on April 9, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change cleared Oil India’s Rs 1,067-crore proposal to drill 16 exploratory and development wells, set up four production installations and lay a pipeline under four existing petroleum mining leases: Mechaki, Mechaki extension, Baghjan and Tinsukia extension.

On May 11, Oil India received environmental clearance for hydrocarbon exploration in the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park using a new technology called extended reach drilling. The technique would allow Oil India to drill horizontally from outside the park to tap the hydrocarbon reserves within.

According to documents submitted by Oil India to the Union environment ministry, there would be seven wells using extended reach drilling under the 75 square kilometre Baghjan mining lease, approved in 2006.

These seven wells would be drilled in the three existing plinths, or platforms on which wells stand. That includes plinth for Baghjan’s well number 5, which burst into flames last month.

Before the January 2020 notification, neither of the new projects would have been possible. The new wells for the extended reach drilling project would be drilled 1.1 to 1.5 kilometres from the national park boundary. When Oil India applied for environmental clearance for the Mechaki Extension project , it noted the project site was 1.7 kilometres from the park.

The environmental clearance for the Mechaki extension project notes how 10 wells and three production facilities, “which were earlier falling within 10-kilometre ESZ are now out as per the minutes of the 37th ESZ expert committee meeting”.

Oil India had been waiting for the eco-sensitive zone to be narrowed. It gave an undertaking that it would not carry out drilling or construction activities for the Mechaki extension project till the final notification for the eco-sensitive zone was published.

A curtailed eco-sensitive zone helped Oil India bypass other clearances. For example, it needed a National Board of Wildlife clearance for the Mechaki Extension project since many of the drilling locations were within 10 kilometres of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. In its Form 2 application for prior environmental clearance, the company said it would seek clearance from the National Board for Wildlife. With the new eco-sensitive zone boundaries, that is no longer needed.

“It is not required since we are not drilling inside forest land or ESZ area,” said Tridiv Hazarika, the spokesperson for Oil India.

Rescue workers recover the body of a fireman at Baghjan.

Ground zero

Two other proposed projects could gain from the zero kilometre eco-sensitive zone around the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

There is the Rs 1,988.62 crore Khagarijan project, where Oil India has 44 development and 10 exploratory wells. In 2016, Oil India had also submitted a proposal for 179 wells, production locations and pipelines in the North Hapjan-Tinsukia-Dhola area in Tinsukia district, a Rs 3,500-crore project.

The 2016 proposal covers areas under five petroleum mining leases, including the Baghjan lease. Documents submitted to the environment ministry, reviewed by Scroll.in, mention that the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the Padumoni Wildlife Sanctuary and the Borajan Wildlife Sanctuary all fall within 10 kilometres of the proposed project.

The documents also specify how the Bherjan Wildlife Sanctuary and the eco-sensitive zone of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park is located within the block area. A part of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary also falls in the southern part of the block, the document says.

As with the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, Oil India raised objections to the draft notification demarcating the eco-sensitive zone around the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. At the 37th meeting of the expert committee, Yadava had said that Oil India’s objections were being taken into account as there were drilling sites in the vicinity of the park.

Yadava told the committee that the eco-sensitive zone boundary would be “modified in such a way that the extent is up to 1km beyond the southern boundary of PA [protected area] and there is a restriction of drilling activities within that 1 km.” The eco-sensitive zone is yet to be notified.

The Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is the last remaining patch of lowland rainforest in Assam. Over the past few months, the National Board for Wildlife’s clearance to coal mining projects close to the sanctuary and revelations of illegal mining in the area have given rise to public anger in Assam. In June, after months of facing public wrath, the state government said it would push for the sanctuary to be upgraded to a national park.

A Baghjan mystery

Meanwhile, the Baghjan blowout has led to closer scrutiny of Oil India’s existing operations. Well number five in Baghjan was drilled in 2005. Hazarika said it received environmental clearance in 2011, along with other wells in the area.

“We applied for the EC together since Baghjan 5 well was being drilled before the EIA notification of 2006,” Hazarika explained. The Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006 set up a system of expert committees granting environmental clearances to industrial projects after scrutinising their environmental impact.

In 2011, Oil India got two environmental clearances from the Union environment ministry, one for the six exploratory wells in Mechaki area and one for 26 development wells and 15 exploratory wells in North Hapjan-Tinsukia-Dhola area. According to Oil India claims, the latter covered Baghjan’s well number five.

The environment clearance for the North Hapjan-Tinsukia-Dhola wells, granted in November 2011, states, “No national park/wildlife sanctuary/eco-sensitive area are located within 10 km.” Yet, according to the divisional forest officer, Baghjan’s well number five is just 900 metres from the core area of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

The Hindustan Times reported how the wells in the region, including well number five, were not assessed for their wildlife impact and no clearance from the National Board for Wildlife was obtained, even though they were close to the park.

Officials at the Union environment ministry did not respond when asked whether Baghjan’s well number five had received environmental and wildlife clearances.

Hazarika, however, denied that Oil India had bypassed clearances. “We play by the rulebook,” he said. “We have never concealed anything and have abided by the law. We will only ask for an NBWL clearance when we need to go inside the forest or ESZ. We have never taken shortcuts.”

A house destroyed by the Baghjan fire.

‘Lost the faith of the people’

The environmental clearances for Oil India, however, come without an important step in the process mandated by the Environment Impact Assessment notification of 2006: public hearings.

No public hearings were conducted before the environmental clearances were granted to Oil India projects in 2011, documents reviewed by Scroll.in show. The Mechaki Extension and the extended reach drilling projects have also been exempted from public hearings.

The expert appraisal committee, in a meeting that ended on January 1, 2020, “acknowledged national importance of the [extended reach drilling] project”. It also noted “issues in conducting fresh public hearing due to prevailing law, order & local pressures and vulnerability”, and granted the project an exemption.

Oil India had told the committee about the alleged problems it had faced in the conduct of public hearings and claimed it could lead to a long delay.

On March 12, about two weeks before the nationwide lockdown against the coronavirus, Oil India did organise a public hearing in Baghjan village. This was for its expansion projects, including North Hapjan-Tinsukia-Dhola, Khagorijan and the extensive reach drilling wells. Although the latter had been exempt, an Oil India official said they decided to include it since there had been confusion about the project earlier and a public hearing was being held anyway.

According to an official of the Assam Pollution Control Board who attended the meeting, the new projects elicited a mixed response. “Some supported the projects while others mentioned their reservations,” said the official, who did not wish to be named.

The Baghjan blowout may have soured the relationship with local residents even further. “People who have lost their property are getting desperate for compensation,” said Hemanta Moran, a local government teacher in Baghjan. As local protests continue, the district administration has been entrusted with assessing the compensation amount.

So far, Oil India has deposited Rs 9 crore with the deputy commissioner of Tinsukia for Rs 30,000 interim compensation to around 3,000 families who have been temporarily displaced. “By July 27, deputy commissioner will complete the damage assessment and we will pay compensation as per that assessment,” Hazarika said.

An official source said capping the well, compensation and the loss of production due to protests had cost the company an amount “touching Rs 300 crore.”

An Oil India executive speaking off the record admitted the company had lost local trust after the blowout. “We have lost the faith of the people; it will take time to regain,” he said, adding that rising anger could mean Oil India would have trouble implementing its expansion plans. “The priority is to cap the well. We will get to know of the mood of the people after the well is capped and compensation issues are sorted out.”

There is still time before the expansion plans are put into action – the extended reach drilling project, for instance, still needs to get a forest clearance, which could prove difficult.

“We will cross the bridge once we get there,” said Hazarika.

‘A crucial buffer’

Meanwhile, conservationists are up in arms. World Wildlife Fund India said the Baghjan blowout and fire proved, once again, the danger of having a zero-kilometre eco-sensitive zone around protected areas.

“A 10 km ESZ should be maintained for all Protected Areas and oil and gas including other developmental activities that could cause potential ecological damage should not be permitted inside ESZs which are a crucial buffer for PAs,” the World Wildlife Fund said in response to questions sent by Scroll.in.

The Wildlife Institute of India released a preliminary report in early June assessing the impact of the blowout on aquatic flora and fauna. It noted mass mortality and said the blowout had created environmental conditions that were debilitating to the survival of species.

The Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the nearby Maguri Motapung wetland are home to 40 species of mammals, 500 species of birds, 104 species of fish, 11 species of chelonians, 18 species of lizards, 23 species of snakes, 105 species of butterflies and 680 plant species.

The institute called for a thorough impact assessment before any new drilling takes place. “It would be not only prudent but also essential for the wellbeing of all life forms that the approved new wells and further explorations in this area should be initiated only after a thorough investigation of potential impact, as well as evaluating disaster handling capabilities in place, with appropriate technology and trained manpower,” the report said.

Where the buck stops

But who will bear the responsibility of ensuring that environmental norms are met?

Hazarika claimed that questions about zero-kilometre eco-sensitive zones had to be answered by government authorities as they were not determined by Oil India.

Yadava, who represented the Assam government at the eco-sensitive zone committee meeting, heads two state government committees investigating the Baghjan incident and its impact. According to him, the buck stopped with the Centre.

Asked if there was a rethink on how eco-sensitive zones should be designed post the Baghjan incident, he said: “No, there is no such thing. We don’t decide on the ESZ. It is done by a government of India committee.”

Officials of the Union environment ministry, including a secretary and an additional secretary, did not respond to Scroll.in’s email with queries about the zero-kilometre eco-sensitive zone of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and whether there has been a rethink on how eco-sensitive zones are designed in the aftermath of the Baghjan blowout. Gaurav Khare, the spokesperson of the Union environment ministry, promised to get back by Monday evening. The story will be updated if the ministry responds.