Assam OIL blowout, fire: The polluter must pay | HT Editorial
Review the new drilling clearance; assess the quantum of damage; fix responsibility
The Baghjan natural gas well of Oil India Limited (OIL) in Assam’s Tinsukia district, which was spewing gas and condensate, caught fire on Tuesday — 13 days after it had a blowout. The well is close to the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and adjacent to the Maturin wetlands, one of India’s finest (and also home to some rare avian species). The blowout has caused extensive damage to the biodiversity and wildlife; Tuesday’s fire could lead to further destruction.
The twin mishaps show the pitfalls of allowing hazardous industries in ecologically sensitive areas. In May, OIL received clearance for further drilling in DSNP. This order must now be reviewed. It is also imperative to assess what system failure led to the accidents and the extent of the damage to the environment and livelihoods. Then comes the question of compensation: OIL could be held liable under the absolute liability principle. But, in India, the compensation and relief process is circuitous, as a report by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, titled The Management of Environment Relief Fund, shows. The report assesses the effectiveness of the Fund, which accepts contribution from industries covered under the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, and the compensation awarded by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to victims of environmental damage.
The Fund is beset with three problems: Amounts awarded by NGT are not first being credited to it; an overwhelming proportion of compensation orders are in the Supreme Court; there is no tracking of the implementation of the compensation process either by NGT or the government. These flaws must be fixed; otherwise erring parties will have no fear of the legal process and the polluter pays principle, and affected parties will continue to bear the brunt of such accidents.