Assam Environment Reel

Assam’s environment day in contrast: An ode to a tree and a pale national park

-Avishek Sengupta

Frame one: Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal along with forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya was seen planting a sapling at Chakardo in Kamrup district to kick start a sampling plantation program.

Frame two: About 622 km away, lush, green grasslands of over a few kilometers inside a national park in upper Assam’s Tinsukia district have turned brown due to a gas leak in a well about 500-metres away from that eco-sensitive zone.

World Environment Day this year had a very contrasting set of frames in Assam — sapling plantation drives in various parts of the state and the 10th day of a gas blow-out in Baghjan oil well owned by Oil India Limited (OIL), the leakage of which has not been capped yet and is spilling over to the nearby Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.

On the occasion of the Environment Day, on June 5, denoted by the United Nations on 1972 after the first day of the Stockhome Conference on the Human Environment on this very day, a tree planted two years ago in the official residence of minister Suklabaidya received a thank you note from him over Twitter and Facebook.

“I hope you flourish, make this earth a lot greener and continue protecting the life on this planet,” Suklabaidya’s message, written in Assamese roughly translated to. A photo of him hugging the tree was attached to the tweet and the Facebook post.

“The minister has not come once in the last ten days since the blowout in the well,” said Niranta Gohain, a local environmentalist in the Baghjan area.

The National Park stretching over 765 square kilometers, designated as a biosphere reserve in 1997, besides having a dense and dark dipterocarp-dominated core area of 340 square kilometers, an ideal adobe for endangered Hoolock Gibbon swinging on its top branches also engulfs the Dibru River, where Gangetic river dolphins or xihu, another endangered species treads water and in monsoon, ventures to the Maguri Motapung Beel, a wetland on the forest’s edge.

After 10 days of the gas blow-out, Oil-tints over the wetland are refracting sunlights into VIBGYOR, carcasses of aquatic animals and fishes are washing to its shores, grasslands and leaves of some decades-old-trees have turned pale and yellow and a deafening sound of the well-killing machines have superseded the gibbon’s occasional whoops, hoots and even the crescendos.

“They (the gibbons), are very shy and sensitive animals. They will be the worst affected victims of this blowout. The sounds of the well killing machines can be heard from about 30- kilometers away. We are hoping that the leak is capped soon or else, it will completely destroy the bio-diversity of this land,” Binanda Hatibaruah, an environmentalist in Tinsukia said.

“The Maguri beel is the worst affected,” said Diplob Chetia, another local environmentalist, adding, “Thousands of migratory birds flock this beel every year attracting ornithologists from all over the world. Oil spills stick to the bird’s wings making it incapable of flying. It also forms a layer over water bringing down its oxygen layer suffocating the aquatic animals and fishes. At times, it gets into their system and clogs their respiratory system from inside.
National ornithologist, conservationist, and author, Bikram Grewal has commented on this use saying, “Cry the Beloved Country!!”

People residing near the Baghjan area protests on a bridge over Maguri Beel asking the government to save Dibru-Sakhowa National Park on World Environment Day.

The blowout, following which, at least two teams from ONGC, well-killing experts from Singapore rushed in, a US-based expert firm is remotely consulting, a team of OIL, Central Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gases, an Assam team and a team under Pollution Control Board, Assam had rushed in, has caused more damage to the low lands than the high lands, said Gohain, who also owns a travel agency named Wave Eco-Tourism.

“Situated on the edge of the forest, about 500 meters from the beel and a kilometer from the grasslands, the effects of the oil spillage and the gas leak has caused most damages to the lowlands nearby that also includes over 5-6 villages. The furthest spillage chunks shot out of the well, landed about kilometers away.

About 600 families in the villages within the radius of 1.5 kilometers have been displaced and kept in camps until the leak is capped.

The state’s forest department had on June 2 constituted a 10-member team consisting of forest officials and scientists to assess the effects of the blowout and the consecutive spillage in the forest and its wetlands.

“The forest minister has asked the committee to formulate a contingency plan to conserve the forest after this incident. All measures to preserve the bio-diversity of the forest are being taken, Sailen Pandey, the forest department’s PRO said.

Meanwhile, the people in the Baghjan area are demanding the dismantling of the oil wells from the region.

“The Baghjan OIL, that has at least six wells, was a ticking time bomb that finally burst. We had been opposing it since 2001 and yet, our demands were paid no heed. Finally, the flora and fauna of the national park and the hundreds of people in the nearby areas are paying the price,” said Gohain.

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