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Maguri beel in Assam faces endgame after Baghjan blast

After the initial blowout on 27th May of the BGR 5 oil well of Baghjan area in Tinsukia, Assam, another fire engulfed it on Tuesday. This came the very next day after a team of experts arrived from Singapore to Assam, who reached the site on Monday and were supposed to work on it. Many families of nearby villages have been affected badly. Locals fled due to the ensuing situation and so far have been kept in 12 relief centres. 2 deaths have been reported from the blast. Many farmers have revealed that their crops have been damaged as condensate gas falls in villages near the site of an oil well fire. Lavanya Moran, a farmer says, “Our crops of tea and areca nut have been damaged due to the gas leak. Tea leaves are falling from the plants”.

Overall, the issue that has popped up in mainstream media is of how things went out-of-control. What remains to be explored further is the systematic destruction of Maguri Beel (wetland) beyond the contemporary.

Where’s the Maguri Beel?

Maguri Beel is a large wetland located 3.8 Km away from Guijan Ghat, gateway of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve. A small channel connects Maguri Beel with the Dibru River to the North. It has grown in importance because it is home to some of the rarest of the bird species and attracts varied other bird species from around the globe. It has already been declared an Important Birding Site (IBA) by BirdLife International. Therefore it has become a major attraction & destination for bird lovers and ornithologists.

The beel is also very rich in aquatic life and this has led to the development of many fishing camps near it. The grassland environment near the beel, creates a safe haven for grassland birds. Some of the migratory bird species visiting the beel include the Ruddy Shelduck, Baikal Teal, Bar-Headed Goose, Falcated Duck, Ferrigunuous Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wegion, Common Teal, Black- Headed Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Curlew etc.

This is how rich in bird species the beel is, as per the definition on Tezpur University website. What remains now is crude destruction. Few examples embedded below

Ground Reality: Maguri Beel now

There have been constant seismic activities in the Maguri Beel peripheries in and around villages like Natun Gaon. “We have had earthquakes like never before”, says Nirantor Gohan, a local environmentalist. After the Baghjan blast, the grassland areas of the wetlands were burnt upto 1-2 km and the condensate has caused it to change the colour to brown”.

Maguri peripheries

Gohain then talks about the flora and fauna, “earlier the area had great diversity and was a renowned eco-tourism centre, now how will the migratory birds come?”.

Nevertheless, this goes beyond the current blast as he traces the issue back to the environmental clearance given in 2005 to Oil India Limited (OIl) for setting up the well. “No public views were taken when this was setup”. Taking cognizance of the locals is one of the factors of environmental impact assessment (EIA). EIA is the assessment of the environmental consequences of a plan, policy, program, or actual projects prior to the decision to move forward with the proposed action.

Ever since the blast, the locals have demanded that oil activities need to be pushed 10 km away from the wetland. But there’s a catch which will be discussed later in the article. Now the response.

The govt angle

To understand the situation, Inside Northeast approached the pollution board regarding why the permission was given. Speaking to Hiren Pegu, Regional Executive Engineer, “Yes, this area (beel) has been affected by the blowout and we have taken samples from Maguri to understand the situation”. As for the clearance given without taking local sentiments into consideration, he stated that in “2005 impact assessment didn’t happen and it only began after the 2006 September notification”.

He then raised another aspect that connects the issue to the oil mishap regarding the type of well. “This is a production well and not a drilling well. Usually, there’s not much impact from the production well. This blast happened during the workover operations, and how that happened will have to be understood”. The term workover is used to refer to any kind of oil well intervention involving invasive techniques, such as wireline, coiled tubing or snubbing. More specifically, a workover refers to the expensive process of pulling and replacing completion or production hardware in order to extend the life of the well. The govt has initiated a higher level of enquiry for that matter, and Inside Northeast will keep you updated on the findings.

Meanwhile, to understand the distinction we approached a Petroleum Academic.

Technical

Speaking on anonymity he explained the confusion of the wells: “The drilling site with an open hole with one barrier that is mud is usually dangerous and has a bigger chance of a blowout in lieu of more pressure. The production well, with its 4 Casing policy, is usually secured and it is actually strange that a 14-year-old well can blowout like that”.

To cross-check the pollution board’s logic, Inside Northeast approached Abhishek Poraxar, a well-known law academic with environmental speciality.

Legal angle: Ambiguity

He revealed, “EIA laws are changing so much and are tweaked such that they can even perplex lawyers”. Even though he agrees that the notification came after 2005 but over the years EIAs have become more “industry-friendly” that hinders the environmental potential. In 2017, in the same area, the Ministry gave clearance to one of the wells after which the EIA was done by consultants on behalf of the Oil company. This in itself is a paradoxical way to function. The Ministry was also recently in the news after the NBWL approved coal mining in Saleki PRF near to Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary even though it was within the 10 km sensitive zone. For more details, read the story linked below.

Also read: Assam: In Dehing Patkai, coal mining is a way of life

Now let’s discuss the aforementioned catch: Maguri Beel is not a recognised protected area. As such, the 10 km eco-sensitive zone rule doesn’t apply to Maguri Beel. However, Maguri is in the periphery of Dibru Saikhowa which falls within the 10 km zone. Therein lies argument which can be forwarded, said Poraxar.

Going forward

The entire issue has exposed current vulnerabilities of India’s development that claims to have checks and balances to reduce the ill effects of exploitation. However, those counterbalances have failed the Maguri heel, Dibru Saikowa and Dehing Patkai because individual departments instead of providing clarity on their role are passing the buck to others in the name of technicalities. The elected representatives have been short-sighted in their policy making to protect the sensitive ecology of Assam.

In such a situation, concerned citizens have to step in and the first thing is to designate Maguri as an eco-sensitive zone. Secondly, civil society will have to pressurise and keep tabs on these EIAs and other so-called mechanisms that claim to “protect” on record. Otherwise, Assam as we know it can only survive in that yearly calendar with good photographs.

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