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Assam Gas Leak 2020: Supreme Court directs formation of new committee, notes error in NGT order in appointing OIL MD to old panel

The bench observed that it would not be appropriate to task the Assam Chief Secretary to head a committee which is more or less of adjudicatory nature concerning the issues related to environment and biodiversity which needs expert guidance.

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The Supreme Court on Thursday heard the appeal against the order of National Green Tribunal (NGT) appointing the Managing Director of Oil India Limited (OIL) as a member of the 10-member Committee chaired by Assam Chief Secretary for the determination of damages and compensation and for the restoration of the National Park and Wetland, further more to take over all surviving issues from the earlier Committees like non-compliance with the statutory provisions, fixing the responsibility for the failures of the concerned individuals present at the incident and to lay down a road map for ensuring compliance of safety protocols.

The bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Hima Kohli directed the NGT to form a new committee headed by retired Justice of Guwahati High Court, Justice B.P. Katakey and observed that NGT erred in appointing the director of OIL since the disaster was caused due to lapse on its part. “A representative of OIL in committee would not contribute to fair result,” the bench stated.

The bench also observed that it would not be appropriate to task the Assam Chief Secretary to head a committee which is more or less of adjudicatory nature concerning the issues related to environment and biodiversity which needs expert guidance.

The bench also observed that NGT constituted a Committee of Experts lead by BP Katakey following the damage and destruction caused to the biodiversity of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve due to the blowout which took place from Baghjan 5 Oil well on May 27th 2020. Thereafter a preliminary report was submitted on July 24th 2020 by a Committee appointed by the NGT and a again a progress report was filed on October 31st 2020 setting out the destruction of fish species and the severe environmental impact caused by the blowout.

In the backdrop NGT ordered to constitute 3 new committees to perform separate tasks. The bench observed that it would be appropriate to direct that the already existing committees shall be substituted by following committee headed by Justice BP Katakey. The bench also took into account the substantive amount of work already been completed by Justice BP Katakey and stated that there is no reason the new committee can’t be benefited from that.

The bench directed to form a new 5-member committee led by Former Justice B.P. Katakey as Chairperson of the Committee alongside Dr Ritesh Kumar, G.S. Dang, Kamar Qureshi and Bedanga Bordoloi

The bench requested the committee to take up work at early convenience within a period of 3 months. The ministry of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change shall depute a nodal officer who shall facilitate all logistical arrangements for the committee and furthermore, the committee is at liberty to make interim remedial measure with respect to the damages so that a suitable direction be issued to OIL to deposit the amount.

The bench further directed that all concerns including the Chief Secretary, The SPCB, CPCB and OIL are directed to co-operate the committee to facilitate their work.

The bench also ordered that if interim report is received in the mean time the liberty is granted to Bonani Kakkar (Appellant) to move the apex court in regards to amount of compensation assessed by OIL to facilitate the development.

The matter is now listed for December 9.

On May 27, 2020, a natural gas blowout occurred at Oil India Limited Baghjan Well no. 5 Oilfield in Tinsukia District of Assam. It has been stated that as the consequences of accident extensive destruction was caused to Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri- Motapung Wetland resulting in massive leak of natural gas. On June 9, 2020, the gas caught fire and forced the natives of the place to evacuate the area. The damage reached to the nearby areas of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Maguri-Motapung Wetland. The fire extended in the nearby areas stayed live for 6 months.

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When the matter was taken up by NGT, OIL was found to be in possession of the land and started its drilling operations in well of Bhagjan-5 in 2006 without having mandatory consent to establish and operate both under sec. 25 and 26 of water (prevention and control of pollution) act, 1974 and under section 21 of the Air (prevention and control of pollution) act in 2006 plus Authorization rule 6 of the Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016. They did not have permission except for the year 2008-09, 2012-13, 2018-19 under the aforesaid statute.

The team of Justice Katakey recorded 35 varieties of dead fish species belonging to 13 families being completely wiped out. There was a drastic decline in oxygen and water level.

It was also noted that 3000 families were affected and 9000 persons were displaced from their houses and accommodated in 12 relief camps. In total Rs 68.05 crore liability was admitted by OIL to compensate 600 affected families.

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