Residents of Baghjan in Upper Assam, affected by the May 27 gas well blowout, have joined the chorus against the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2020, saying the proposed changes could threaten the “existence” of people like them living in eco-sensitive zones.
Protesting against the delay in settling their compensation demand by July 27, as assured by the Tinsukia district administration, the affected people have included and flagged the EIA at their sit-in at one of the relief camps for the second straight day on Thursday.
“We want the EIA scrapped. Who better than us to convey what should be the proposed rules and regulations for setting up new projects, drilling or exploration of natural resources? We fear there will be more Baghjan-like situations/mishaps if the draft EIA is passed in its present avatar. It threatens people like us, living in eco-sensitive zones. We will write to the ministry seeking its scrapping in a couple of days,” Hemanta Moran, a Baghjan resident, told The Telegraph from the protest site, about 530km east of here. The demand for scrapping the EIA has gathered momentum this week as most see it as a threat to the people and resources of the Northeast. The North East Students’ Organisation (Neso) has already moved the environment ministry seeking its repeal.
Former chief minister Tarun Gogoi moved Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday seeking withdrawal of the draft EIA as it has given “unlimited power” to the authorities to take any kind of step which will be “harmful” to the region’s natural resources. “Such arbitrary power is likely to be misused by big corporate groups,” Gogoi said.
The Baghjan blowout at the gas well operated by the Oil India Limited has left a deep scar on nearly 8,000 people, 4,000 of whom are still living in relief camps.
The mishap has adversely impacted the local ecology, including a popular wetland that has been a source of economic sustenance of nearly 50 per cent of the locals. The blowout site is also close to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and is also a recognised important bird area, popular with tourists as well as environmentalists.
“Our lives and livelihood have been disrupted. The gas well is yet to be capped. We don’t know how much time it will take to restore normalcy, restore the ecology. Besides settling our compensation issue, the government needs to take a close look at our plight and prepare the EIA with proper checks and balances. We will write to the ministry,” Moran said.
Fuelling fears of the locals is the preliminary report of a committee constituted by the National Green Tribunal. It blames those operating the gas well for the blowout. The committee has found “deficiency” on three counts — in understanding the gravity of the situation, supervision on the part of the contractor (company looking after the maintenance of the well) and OIL and proper planning of critical operations.
Gogoi in his letter to Modi said it is not only the Northeast but the entire Himalayan region that is concerned over the draft EIA as it will “seriously harm” all ecological aspects of the region.
“ The alarming melting of Himalayan Glaciers has resulted large-scale flood and erosion in the Northeast region and due to massive deforestation Assam has been facing the main problem of flood and erosion....Moreover it will lead to loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, water resources, fertility of agricultural soil, decrease of ground water level, pollution.... It will ultimately have negative impact on health and economic activities in the region and lead to starvation, unemployment too,” Gogoi said.
He reminded Modi of the contradictions within his government – of championing the cause of ecological balance for all-round development and the “arbitrary” EIA being pushed by the environment ministry.
Bibhab Talukdar of Aaranyak, a leading society for biodiversity conservation, has urged the Centre to come up with a separate policy for the Northeast, keeping in mind its fragile ecosystems that need proper handling to reduce environmental disaster.