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Lessons from Lebanon: Why this should be an epiphany for Assam

Thurgood Marshall, United States First African American Judge in the Supreme Court while delivering a judgment in 1972 famously wrote, “In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute” which set the bar for law students and practitioners alike when taking about race and law. Replace the word humanity with justice, and you would get what we miss out as a collective in the present times. The ideas of liberty, justice and equality are rather philosophical, and it would be unjust for me to envisage of their philosophical underlining, given that some of the world’s greatest jurists have already done so. My effort though is to use the underlying idea of those philosophies with what took place in Lebanon merely a few days ago. 

There is often much more to any such disaster than the disturbing pictures, government statements and a refusal by most to take responsibility. The countdown to this catastrophe had started almost six years back in the form of a legal dispute when a Russian cargo ship made an unscheduled stop at the city carrying 2,750 tons of Ammonium Nitrate. The Ship which had a Russian crew had arrived with a small hole in its hull which demanded water being pumped out of it consistently. Trailed by debts, the ship, named ‘Rhosus’, was abandoned by its Russian owner after it became a diplomatic and financial issue. The Ammonium Nitrate that it has carried was transferred to the now infamous dockside warehouse in Beirut. 

Also read : Lebanon government steps down amid violent protest over blast

It therefore, does not need much explaining to point out that the incident was a tale of how long drawn legal battles, policy paralysis, unaccountability and chronic negligence sometimes lead to undesired consequences. This then brings me back to the words I had stated earlier – liberty, justice and equality, words that find themselves in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution together with the implications that acts such as those in Beirut have to the masses or people unconnected to such incidents or unable to do anything for themselves in such disasters, in other words those that get affected in their liberty to enjoy life, their justice to be alive or get back to their lives that was a few hours before the explosion and equality to be treated like everyone else who has been affected by the incident which in such cases becomes different owing to sheer number of people that have their lives impacted.

This example along with its implications also carries with it a very significant lesson for Assam as well as the other North-Eastern States in India. While our fright will not necessarily be the same as Lebanon, the recent Gas leak infused fire at Baghjan Oil field in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district which along with affecting the neighboring people has also now made the area uninhabitable or the now suspended coal mining activities in the ecologically sensitive Dehing Patkai Wildlife sanctuary are indications that if adverse policies such as the 2020 draft of Environmental Impact Assessment are passed, we too might suffer from similar policy paralysis and lack of accountability which highlighted the disaster in Lebanon. The Baghjan incident was a significant case of negligence not only because of the leakage, but also because the Oil well existed within the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park’s Economic Sensitive Zone, and 5 other Oil wells in less than a kilometre from the wetlands at the southern end of the Park which forms a part of the ESZ (Eco-Sensitive Zone) in contravention of the Guidelines for the Declaration of Economic Sensitive Zone and National Wildlife Action Plan. An extreme example of a public sector undertaking has severely flouted the country’s environmental norms.

Moreover, even though the Indian Judiciary has historically played a pro-active role in growing the environmental jurisprudence and raising standards on protection, delay in proceedings is one hurdle that has the potential to adversely impact its efforts. Moreover, even though principles such as ‘polluter pays’ now find prominence in India, it is important to realize a few significant points – first, it is utopian and delusional to expect the polluter to himself furnish information about the hazardous practices leave alone paying for them; secondly, several judgments have time and again shown that industries do not find any incentives in complying with procedures laid down by specific Environment Acts and often find it more profitable to pay damages at a later stage; Thirdly, in most cases such as the infamous Bhopal Gas Tragedy or the Baghjan Fire in Assam damages awarded are merely symbolic and does little to help those affected. 

The Indian Constitution not only mandates under Article 51 A(g) as fundamental duties to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures, but even Article 21 which envisages the idea of protection of life and liberty, in an extended interpretation also deals with protecting everything that helps an individual enjoy life which includes the surrounding environment. 

Therefore, it is imperative for the collective society to be aware of our rights as well as duties in an effort to ensure protection of not only ourselves but also in ensuring that our liberty does not affect somebody else’s enjoyment of the same. The mishap in Beirut, is a lesson we must all read, learn and understand about so as to then use the knowledge to avoid any action or raise our voices as stakeholders against policy decisions which could potentially create a threat on our sustainability.  

About the Author: Animesh Bordoloi 

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