‘Disappointed’ SC stays NGT order on Baghjan fire
The Supreme Court on Thursday expressed disappointment over the National Green Tribunal (NGT) including an Oil India Ltd (OIL) official in a 10-member committee to assess damage caused to the biodiversity due to the fire at Assam’s Baghjan oil well despite holding the corporation responsible for the losses.
The SC stayed the NGT order constituting the committee.
The panel was asked to come up with a remedial restoration plan including for Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri-Motapung Wetland, which suffered damage due to the 172-day fire at the oil well in the Tinsukia district. The Well No-5 at Baghjan caught fire on June 9 last year, and left two of OIL’s firefighters dead.
“We are surprised that NGT first holds that Oil India is responsible for the damages to the environment and for destroying the wetlands and then an officer of Oil India is made a member of the committee to go into these issues,” said a bench of justices Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and MR Shah while hearing an appeal against the February 19 tribunal order.
According to the NGT order, the committee was to be headed by Assam’s chief secretary and would include the OIL managing director. The Supreme Court said the inclusion of the OIL official was “completely surprising”.
Senior advocate Siddharth Mitra, appearing for petitioner Bonani Kakkar, called it a breach of the principle of justice, where somebody with a direct conflict of interest was being asked to adjudicate a matter.
Mitra pointed out that another committee led by former high court judge BP Katakey has submitted a comprehensive report on the matter. He said it was followed by a progress report, and hence constitution of a new committee will only delay the process.
The bench agreed with Mitra’s submissions and stayed the NGT order. It said it will hear the matter immediately after two weeks so that the issue is not left pending any further. The SC said it will form a new panel that could go into all the issues and submit a report expeditiously.
“We may monitor this ourselves. We are disappointed by the manner in which the NGT has simply pushed this off its hands. It is the National Green Tribunal. It must have some alacrity and concerns for the environment,” the court said.
In June 2020, the NGT slapped an interim ₹25 crore penalty on OIL over its failure to stop the fire. It also set up the first Katakey-led panel. After this panel indicted OIL, the NGT bench headed by its chairperson justice AK Goel said in the February order that the tribunal prima facie agrees there was a failure on part of OIL.
The tribunal called for a need to ensure that such incidents do not recur while constituting the 10-member panel to assess the damages and for the remedial restoration plan.
“The onus of forming the committee was entirely with NGT and OIL had no role to play in it. We would not be able to comment on the SC ruling as we are yet to see it,” said OIL spokesperson Tridiv Hazarika.