Victims of crude oil contamination in Nagaland are caught between an oil major reluctant to own up its responsibility and a state government playing down the pollution issue.
Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has rejected allegations that it did not adhere to international norms while withdrawing from Changpang block in Nagaland’s Wokha district in 1994. It also attributed the oil spill to miscreants who tampered with ‘faultlessly sealed’ wells to lay their hands on a ‘valuable commodity’ (crude).
However, ONGC is game for a clean-up operation 17 years after it extracted the last drop of crude from a third of 31 wells it had placed in a 12 sq km area spanning two villages – Changpang and Tssori.
The operations began in March 1981, eight years after the government issued an exploration licence to the oil PSU.
But a five-member cabinet sub-committee formed for framing guidelines for oil operations and dealing with related issues is not keen on ONGC returning to Nagaland.
Officials of the PSU cited local complications (arising out of customary laws as well as demands for ‘donations’) for ceasing its Nagaland operations, but the government and NGOs had alleged unethical practices and over-extraction of crude oil.
“ONGC should not be allowed to return as its licence was cancelled,” subcommittee head and planning minister TR Zeliang said in state capital Kohima, adding the oil PSU’s offer to clear the Changpang mess was “an attempt to enter through the backdoor”. The minister, insisted the ‘dangerous levels’ of spillage have reduced significantly from 1997-98 – a position that has incurred the wrath of local organisations.
“This is a shocking and unscientific remark,” said N Janbemo Humtsoe of Green Foundation Wokha, an NGO.
“The people need to know the basis on which the current dangers of the oil spills have been reduced as there is no evidence of any remedial measures being undertaken to contain the oil spills either from the ONGC or the state government.”
Meanwhile, the Changpang Land Owners’ Union has set a December deadline for the Nagaland government to make up its mind on restarting operations.
“If the crude has to be extracted, then it has to be extracted after undoing the damage done to our land,” said NK Kithan, 81, on whose 14-acre land 10 wells were drilled. “And the government must double our share of the royalty.”
ONGC had paid Rs. 33.3 crore to the Nagaland government as royalty for crude extracted between March 1981 and March 1994. But the landowners were given their 2% share of the royalty – Rs. 63 lakh – only in 2003.