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Opinion

Assam OIL blowout, fire: the polluter must pay – editorials

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Oil India Limited’s (OIL) Baghjan natural gas well in the Tinsukia district of Assam, which was leaking gas and condensate, caught fire on Tuesday, 13 days after there was an outbreak. The well is near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and adjacent to the Maturin wetlands, one of the best in India (and also home to some rare bird species). The blowout has caused extensive damage to biodiversity and wildlife; Tuesday’s fire could lead to further destruction.

The twin setbacks show the pitfalls of allowing dangerous industries in ecologically sensitive areas. In May, OIL received authorization to drill more on the DSNP. This request must now be reviewed. It is also imperative to assess which system failure led to accidents and the extent of damage to the environment and livelihoods. Then comes the issue of compensation: OIL could be held liable under the principle of absolute liability. But in India, the process of compensation and relief is tortuous, according to a report by the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, entitled The management of the environmental aid fund, shows. The report assesses the effectiveness of the Fund, which accepts contributions from industries covered by the 1991 Civil Liability Insurance Law, and compensation awarded by the National Green Court (NGT) to victims of environmental damage.

The Fund is plagued by three problems: the amounts awarded by NGT are not credited first; an overwhelming proportion of compensation orders are in the Supreme Court; there is no monitoring of the implementation of the compensation process by either the NGT or the government. These failures must be repaired; otherwise, wandering parties will not fear the legal process and the polluter pays principle, and affected parties will continue to be the most affected by such accidents.

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