“The fire has only increased since the past two nights, and there is no proper media coverage on it,” the locals living in and around Tinsukia town in Assam told The Quint, as the oil-well fire continued to blaze for the fourth day on Friday 12 June.
To bring you voices from the ground, The Quint spoke to a photojournalist, a student and an Environmental activist over what the situation is, and what they witnessed themselves.
“The locals were already living in fear since the last 13 days after the gas leakage. The faces of the people were painful. Though OIL (Oil India Limited) has lost two brave souls on their mission to control the leakage. The eyes of all the local people were red, and I don’t know if it was because of their tears or the fire,” said Diganta Rajkhowa, a freelance photojournalist in Assam.
Rajhkhowa who photographed the tragedy from the ground said, “At first I wasn’t able to take photos due to fear and concern that the fire was spreading very fast and it could come near us as well. But humanity comes first. I was having multiple thoughts about the lives of the villagers and the wildlife.”
‘Oil-Well Not Permissible’
An uncontrolled release of gas had begun at the oil well, managed by OIC, in Baghjan village in Tinsukia district on 27 May. The Centre had given permission to drill the region in May, according to reports.
However, Niranta Gohain, an environmental activist has contested this point, as he pins all the blame for the fire on the government and Oil India for negligence.
“There is dispute over the legality of the oil well, because the well does not have any Environment Clearance (EC). Secondly, the oil well is a few metres away from the national park, and in such an ecologically sensitive area, thy are not allowed to have any such oil-well till at least 1 km. It is not permissible,” he told The Quint.
Around 7,000 people have been evacuated, officials said, according to IANS.
There are reports that the fire in the periphery of Tinsukia has been doused after sustained efforts of fire fighters and at the moment only thick smoke is coming out from the mouth of the well. However, locals have a different story to tell.
Gohain has been advocating against the oil-well since a long time, voicing the opinions of the locals. He was at the Deputy Collector’s office talking about this very issue, when the fire took place on 9 June.
“When I went there, I saw grasslands being burnt, people helplessly watched their houses being set ablaze in front of their eyes,” he said.
He added, “even though a lot of locals have been evacuated, the ones who are still in relief camps are still protesting over the lands, plantations that they have lost. The villagers have lost around 25-30 houses.”
He also filed a PIL in the case on 10 June, in regard to which the Guwahati High Court stated that the issue will be taken up properly when the investigation in the case is over, he claimed.
‘Fire Is Only Increasing’
“Even from 50-60 kms away from Baghjan you can see the fire, it has become that severe and it only seems to be increasing,” said Fatima Naqvi, who lives in a town next to Tinsukia district. This claim was also corroborated by Gohain.
Naqvi recalled the first time her family saw the fire. “When my parents went on a walk a few days ago, they saw a completely orange sky and that made them suspicious. My father also took out his car and we drove to see how far we can get and what had actually happened,” she told The Quint.
“The weather here is usually is quite pleasant, we don’t even need the fan. However, the fire has affected the weather to an extent that people are falling sick. It has become very hot,” added Naqvi.
‘Where’s the Media Coverage?’
Naqi also noted that people in Assam are very pissed with the media coverage that the incident has received. “It has been happening since days and nobody knew about it, no news channel, nobody is properly informing the locals by when all of this will get over,” she said.
Not just an oil-well fire, in the last two days, Gohain stated that there has also been earthquakes because of the fire in Assam, alleging there’s no word about it in the media. “It has also damaged the roofs and walls of even the pucca houses in my area,” he said.
What Did Oil India Say?
Now what has Oil India, the company which owns the oil well said? According to their press release, the company talked about Singapore ‘Alert-Disaster Control’ which is handling the fire, adding that “once the situation is normal, the experts will move to the site.”
“The experts from Alert complimented OIL for all the preparatory work carried out so far and mentioned that based on their wide experience of handling over a thousand blowouts in about 135 countries all over the world under different conditions, they are confident of controlling the fire at the well at the earliest with necessary support from OIL,” read the press release.
However, OIL India has come under fire for not giving all the details about the incident, and for lacking clarity and accountability.
Gohain said, “There are a lot of grasslands, water bodies close near the place where the fire took place, since it is an ecologically sensitive area. A lot of damage has been done to the downstream, but the company and associated people have hidden this angle.”
Gohain noted, “There are around 30-40 more such wells in the Dibru-Saikhowa zone, if they catch any fire, all the biodiversity will finish. A national-level inquiry is needed, including Assam’s Forest Department and Assam’s Pollution Control Board.”
Rajkhowa said, “The people and I are just wishing for the fire to get extinguished as soon as possible, hoping to get back to normal life soon.”