Guwahati HC asks Centre to respond on drilling gas wells inside Assam biosphere

The Gauhati high court (HC) has sought the response of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Central government to a public interest litigation (PIL), challenging the nod granted to Oil India Limited (OIL) authorities on drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations inside and under the jurisdiction of Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts.

OIL authorities had said on Monday that the gas and oil spill at its well in Baghjan, which had occurred on May 27 and had impacted a large area of wetland and grasslands, was successfully capped after 83 days.

The Baghjan operations have been in the news for the environmental disaster, which could have a long-term impact on local people, animals, and ecology, according to a recent assessment by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) authorities.

The petition has challenged the environmental clearance granted to OIL on May 11 to drill inside DSNP.

On Tuesday, the HC directed the OIL authorities to file a point-by-point rebuttal to the plea and also asked assistant solicitor-general SC Keyal, who represented the Central government and MoEFCC, to file a response by September 21.

“All parties have been issued notices and have been directed to file their response by September 21 on the matter,” said Keyal.

The petition cited that OIL had initiated the proposal to drill inside DSNP in 2016 and again in 2019.

It alleged that OIL in a bid to escape mandatory public hearings required under environment impact assessment (EIA), notification, 2006, took recourse to an amendment by the Central government on January 16.

The amendment had re-categorised all onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration to B2 category project from A category project and, as a result, these projects were exempted from public hearings.

“A public hearing is mandatory under law, as per the Supreme Court. OIL authorities cannot exempt themselves from this democratic process,” said Debajit Kumar Das, the advocate, who represented the petitioner.

The petition has also sought a blanket ban on further drilling and extraction of oil or other minerals in eco-sensitive and biodiversity-rich areas of Assam.

“We are aware of the HC order. We will respond to the order through an affidavit,” said Tridiv Hazarika, spokesperson, OIL.

The WII, which had submitted its report to the MoEFCC in July, also

recommended that the approved new wells and exploration in the DSNP landscape should be put on hold until OIL authorities are equipped to handle industrial disasters.

The report underlined that the Maguri Motapung wetland and surrounding lowland forests are unique and extremely vulnerable to more oil spill disasters. “The Brahmaputra and Gangetic floodplain landscape is unique in its morphology and fragility, and is responsible for shaping the unique community of plants and animals … the landscape is fragile and is engineered by flooding. The dynamic nature of wetland creates mosaics of habitat, which are in perpetual flux. In India as well as the world over, there are only a handful of Protected Areas (PAs), where this system and unique biodiversity is surviving. Among them, DSNP, Kaziranga and Orang National Park tops the list,” the report said.

It pointed out that oil wells in and around DSNP would be detrimental to the unique ecosystem. The landscape is also extremely vulnerable to earthquakes and occasionally large tremors, it warned.

Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve harbours tiger, elephant, wild buffalo, leopard, hoolock gibbon, capped langur, slow loris, Ganges River dolphin besides critically endangered bird species such as the Bengal florican, white-winged wood duck, greater adjutant stork, white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture as well as the very rare and endemic black-breasted parrotbill, the report added.

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