Source: The Economic Times

Baghjan, Assam saw black clouds forced into the sky following a devastating gas well blowout. The 2020 Assam gas and oil leak, also referred to as the Baghjan gas leak, is a natural gas blowout that happened in Oil India Limited’s Baghjan Oilfield in Tinsukia district, Assam, India on 27 May 2020. The blowout occurred at Well No. 5 in the Baghjan Oil Field, resulting in a leak of natural gas. The leaking well subsequently caught fire on 9 June 2022 and continued for 6 months. Images of rotting fish and birds floating dead across numerous wetlands and tributaries surfaced in the following days. The devastating loss of biodiversity and resource continued against the backdrop of debates about the technicalities of the drilling for oil, the negligence of Oil India Limited (OIL), and the dangers involved in hydrocarbon explorations. Words like greed, corruption, responsibility, accountability, security, suffering and inequality, appeared in several commentaries and reports in Assam and beyond. 

Fishing/fishery culture is the primary source of livelihood for most of the families living in and around the oil exploration site. The Baghjan area is crisscrossed by many waterbodies, located near the boundary of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motpang wetland. As a result of the continuous OIL spill, a thick layer formed on these water bodies. Moreover, aquatic species have died in large numbers because of the spillage. These deaths were the result of oil floating on the surface of the water which in turn blocked the supply of oxygen and light. This disaster marked a dark future of aquatic species found in the area thus impacting largely on the biodiversity of the particular location. 

Figure: Dead fishes floating around were seen everywhere as captured by Niranta Gohain, an environmentalist from Assam.

In retrospect, the eventual environmental impact forced us to dig into the origins and effects of extractive presence in Assam. Incongruous regimes of the past in the state have influenced social relations and politics on the ground and eventually, under it. The ecological devastation and loss of life have always been engraved into the destiny of Assam’s economic growth and wealth.

What connects the hydrocarbon world and Assam are opaque institutions of power, violence, and a culture of management that simulates ignorance about the causes of local resentment and trauma. Extractive regimes in Assam are a ‘technical matter’, and the angst of communities is a ‘local issue’. To exhibit any sense of empathy or morality with the affected communities there’s an urgent need to confront the toxic nature and history of extraction in Assam.

Dolly Kikon in her article titled Toxic Ecologies: Assam, Oil and A Crude Future, explained how the hydrocarbon industry has been an integral part and in many instances a dependency for the people of the North East. For years now, youth from villages in Tinsukia and Sibsagar districts, centers of the oil industry, have come to the gates of the ONGC and OIL offices to protest and demand employment. On the contrary, elites and the middle-class in Assam have been the beneficiaries of the urban development that has become a welcome byproduct of these hydrocarbon ventures. From contracts to jobs, the patronage for oil and gas exploration has come from politicians and local contractors, and leaders. 

The glory and development of modern Assam have often come on the backs of indigenous communities and the adverse complications of this have finally come out as the Baghjan incident now threatens to break their backs. The tremendous amount of spillage has left the communities dependent on the water bodies, crops and land in a state of helplessness and despair. 

Locals and officials have differing verdicts on who is responsible for the mess in Baghjan. Many claim that the Assam government earns royalties from the oil, so they are the ones that are responsible for such a hazardous incident. Others say that the magnitude of the contamination is beyond comprehension. But this is not the lens that extractive companies have adopted. Neither the lives of communities nor the environmental disaster on the ground matter. The loss is estimated in extraction, profit, and protecting the brand. This is the crude reality across the globe.

What is to be extracted (resources and powerful relations) and who are to be avoided (local communities and histories) are neatly distinguished. This is the point of the extractive industry. Engineers and technicians involved in oil and gas exploration seemed to have never considered hydrocarbons as a socio-political topic; instead their relationship with the oil and gas reserves under the ground was pure and they had nothing to do with the people around. The oil townships, besides the military barracks and the plantation estates, operated on the same ethic. This lack of transparency in social relations reflected the world of the Assamese society at large. 

In the extractive world, oil and gas are the models of progress and development for the state. Assam’s glorious hydrocarbon legacy is celebrated by the larger mass of the Assamese population in order to maintain the story of modernization but at the cost of the most marginalized population who has been left out of the extractive deal. 

Author’s bio – Europa is an art enthusiast, an occasional reader and a musicophile. She’s doing her Master’s in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi and her interest revolves around the issues faced by marginalized communities. Currently, she is interning at