The air has a sulfuric stench to it, smells like a stew of rotten eggs and petrol. The air is also thick with choicest cuss words—an unapologetic assault on Oil India Ltd for its inability to plug a gas leak after a blowout in a well on May 27 in eastern Assam. The accident prompted authorities to relocate close to 2,500 residents away from the site, huddle them into temporary shelters set up in schools. Many of them reported laboured breathing and headache as the crude gas—shooting almost ten storeys up like a giant hissing geyser—blanketed the area. The families in those shelters are worried about their homes, livestock, and children amid a surge in coronavirus cases in the state. The men are finding refuge in expletives and card games when they are not foraging for firewood for the kitchen with a herky-jerky rain beating on the tin roof.
The downpour couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for the technicians of Oil India working tirelessly to contain the damage and prevent the highly inflammatory gas from catching fire. A fire would be the last straw given the site’s location at Baghjan in Tinsukia district. It is barely 1.5 km from Dibru Saikhowa National Park—an ecological hotspot known for its birds and feral horses (fine military steed abandoned by the British during World War II)—and Maguri-Motapung Beel, a wetland on the fringes of this tree-hugging country, where pumpjacks and tropical rainforests fight for space. “Things don’t look good at all with the continuous leakage of gas and oil. It has already spread to the rice fields. Domestic animals have suffered too,” says Nirantar Gohain, an eco-campaigner from the area.