How many pandemics do we need to finally care about nature? There is a clear consensus amongst scientists and environmentalists all over the globe that the rise in zoonotic diseases is directly linked to biodiversity and forest destruction.
To give the reader a clearer view, provide context and a possible guilt trip let me list the zoonosis that occurred recently: Ebola, Bird Flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Nipah Virus, Zika Virus and now the Coronavirus. Man-Made environmental changes modify wildlife population structure; disrupt biodiversity, resulting in environmental conditions that favor particular pathogens.
The ongoing oil spill crisis in Assam, which was too slick (pun intended) to grab media attention, was bound to skip our radar. And it’s not entirely our fault, when has the Indian media ever paid attention to matters of ecology? It is driven, like many other institutions, entirely by running stories that pay. Scandals about politicians, an actress’s outfit, the price of the diamond necklace that Mukesh Ambani gifted his daughter on her wedding day, for these things pay and feed the gossip monger’s trait that we all secretly harbor; airing stories about burning forests, felling of trees, endangered species would hardly get as many views and Instagram likes as a freshly done set of nails. God forbid the public finds out about the environmental malpractices going on and takes to the streets in protests, better to keep them in the dark or engrossed in Donald Trump’s latest tweet in his never-ending always impressive attempt to sound like a total idiot.
On 27th May, the residents of Baghjan village of Upper Assam heard a loud explosion in the midday and confused it with the sound of a jet plane or helicopter flying close to the surface, assuming that perhaps a minister might have finally descended from his/her corrupt throne and arrived in to monitor the flood situation in the area, turns out the deafening sound had come from one of the producing wells of Oil India Limited (OIL), a public-sector enterprise involved in the extraction of hydrocarbons.
The blowout and spill turned the Tinsukia district which is in close vicinity of the most important bird habitats near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, into what some have described as a ‘gas chamber’; imagine the amount of money Hitler would’ve saved on infrastructure had he known open-air gas chambers were possible, alas this enlightenment was only bestowed upon our modern-day industrialists who although do not have the Nazi tag, surely surpass them in their inefficient ways that lead to torture.
For once, I feel relieved that the Gangetic Dolphins are essentially blind or they wouldn’t have been able to withstand the atrocity one of their mates went through whose carcass was found floating on the surface with his skin peeled off in patches. Talk about a bad day. Native tour guide and birder, Mr. Binanda Hatiboruah, posted the matter online to help draw attention to the severity of the incident which unsurprisingly didn’t get any media attention.
The vegetation around the Maguri wetland has become golden brown, the grasses have been burnt by the condensate and appear dead, whereas they should be lush green at this time of the year with the rains coming down. Birders from all over the globe used to come to the wetland to see birds like the Marsh Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler, Swamp Prinia, Black-breasted parrotbill, Swamp Francolin and my favorite, the Falcated Duck. However, despite this being the nesting season of birds and fishes, very few of them have been seen in the area presently. Either they have flown away or they have died. Across India, biodiversity-rich landscapes are under threat because extractive industries are prioritized over environmental concerns, and the resource-rich northeast is, in particular, feeling the heat.
OIL officials, on the other hand, claimed that an uncontrolled discharge of natural gas from the well was “protected by an umbrella of water” sprayed by two fire tenders continuously, a statement which is as hilarious as it is outrageous. The possibility of a mere two fire tenders efficiently covering an ‘uncontrolled’ gas leak defies all laws of proportions that we have ever come across. The district administration was fearing a fire hence almost 500 resident families had been evacuated, their fears were not baseless (how could they be, the futile efforts to cover and control the leak were the epitome of indifference) for on 9th June, there was a major fire outbreak at the well. The fire also aggravated and worsened the environmental impact of the blowout, with the site of the well less than a kilometer from the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and only 500 meters from the Maguri-Motapung Beel. The public sector unit’s lack of expertise and incapability has pushed Maguri Beel to the brink of death.
Every year, Maguri Beel witnesses an onslaught of migratory birds. I’m sure they’ll be bummed seeing their favorite vacation and honeymoon spot smeared in oil, that is if they can brave the toxic condensate and reach the wetlands amidst the choking atmosphere in the first place. As for the indigenous animals, they’ll have to brave the contaminated water and slippery environment until the situation improves, which, according to naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury, could take years. He further added that OIL had failed to control the well in Baghjan and now if they began drilling in DSNP it would all be over and hence, wasn’t justified.
Last month OIL received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Forest and Environment & Climate Change (MoEFCC) to carry out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in seven locations under Dibru Saikhowa National Park, which was met with an uproar from the locals and environmental activists. Following the blowout, the protests have gained momentum; ironic isn’t it? How loss of life is the only thing that prompts us to care about the living. However, the many protests have been falling on deaf ears for neither the media nor the Indian Government is paying attention to this. The damages caused by the fire are not limited to ecological losses. The locals claimed that this incident will severely affect their livelihood as well. Agriculture, fishing, and animal rearing are the main occupation of most people in this area, but now because of the oil spill, agricultural land will become infertile and no farming will be possible for many years. Also, if the oil spills on the nearby tea gardens, they will be seriously affected as the contamination will affect the productivity of the tea leaves and it will not be possible to market them.
Isn’t it uncanny that the only time people gather in large numbers is either to fight for human equality or play Pokemon GO and amidst all this, a socio-ecological loss like this that has got minimum to no attention is nothing new but worrisome? And the funny part is, people aren’t aware of how closely it influences our lives. One wrong step, and bam!! We’ll be stranded in our homes binging on Netflix hogging down bags of chips like we currently are. It proves that we as selfish self-centered people don’t care about anything until it affects us head-on, we do not react to adversity until it reaches our doorstep. And it is maybe this privileged attitude, “there are other people, activists to look after these things” which causes the indifference to growing. For years, people have ignored matters of flora and fauna, some who call themselves nature enthusiasts are nowhere to be seen because the identity crisis today is so strong, people prefer staying quiet or neutral for the fear of facing judgment, criticism or opposition. If the government has failed to analyze the situation correctly and give due importance to the issue, isn’t it our responsibility as the youth of the country to take a stand for the innumerable voiceless species and the people of the region whose lives have been turned upside down for the fulfillment of human greed and negligence of the highest order? In times of a lockdown, where every major event on the environmental calendar has been reduced to a virtual event the very least this cell phone addicted generation can do is sign a few petitions. Let’s retrospect and question ourselves if it’s about the immiscibility of oil with water or that of humans with the environment?
For those of you who are interested in learning how they can contribute, do check out Sanctuary Asia’s website and Instagram page. The following are the links to petitions that you can sign to help avert the Etalin Hydropower project and mining in Dehing Patkai.