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Oil India can’t be judge in its own cause, will reconstitute panel: SC on Baghjan oil well tragedy

The Supreme Court on Monday said that it will re-constitute a committee set up to suggest remedial actions after assessing the environmental damage caused by the PSU following a major fire in Assam’s Baghjan oil well saying ” cannot be a judge in its own cause”. A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and M R Shah asked law officers — K M Nataraj and Aman Lekhi — to go through the suggestions given by petitioners on the names of experts and it will re-constitute a committee.

“We will re-constitute the committee and it will be headed by Justice B P Katakey. Oil India cannot be judge in its own cause. We will delete the names of representatives of Oil India and instead incorporate some experts, who will be associated with the work of assessing the damage and providing remedial compensation on account of the loss which has been caused to the environment, including the loss of biodiversity as a result of the blowout which took place at the oil field of OIL,” the bench said.

Well number 5 at Baghjan in Tinsukia district, had been spewing gas uncontrollably and it caught fire on June 9 last year, killing two of OIL’s fire fighters on the site.

The top court said that on August 26, the court will take up the matter as first item and pass the orders with regard to the same.

Senior advocate Siddharth Mitra, appearing for petitioner activist Bonani Kakkar, said that four out of six experts who have been suggested are well conversant with the subject matter, having been associated with the work of the Committee constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

The committee is headed by Justice B P Katakey.

During the hearing, the bench told Additional Solicitor General Aman Lekhi that how can a representative from Oil India be in a panel to assess the damage, when the damage is alleged to have been caused by the Public Sector Undertaking (PSU).

“Suppose there is a chemical industry responsible for a gas leak or any other incident. Now, when one has to assess the damage caused to the environment or to biodiversity, can that company be part of the committee. Of course it can be heard by the committee but cannot be part of that committee,” the bench told Lekhi.

Mitra said that no funds have been given for the restoration of the environment ever since the incident took place.

“It is undisputed that people have been given compensation to those who got displaced but as far as environment and biodiversity damage is concerned, not a single penny has been given,” he said.

However, Lekhi, who was appearing along with another Additional Solicitor General K M Natraj, countered the arguments made by Mitra and said that “sweeping statements” are being made without taking into the account the funds already sanctioned.

The bench said that it will also ask Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to appoint a nodal officer to provide funds and make travel arrangements for the members of committee and other things.

On July 1, the top court had observed that the NGT must have “some alacrity and concern” for the environment and expressed dissatisfaction over its order in which a top official of Oil India Ltd was inducted into the panel.

The top court stayed the February 19 order of the NGT which said OIL cannot disown its responsibility over the fire in Assam’s Baghjan oil well by shifting the blame on the contractor and had constituted a fresh six-member committee that had included the OIL chief to fix responsibility for the failures of the concerned individuals.

The NGT order had come on a plea filed by Kakkar and others alleging the failure of the authorities in preventing the blowout of Baghjan oil well.

Mitra had told the top court that for the determination of damages and compensation and for the restoration of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Wetland, a ten-member Committee has been constituted headed by the Chief Secretary, Assam in which the Managing Director of OIL has been inducted as a member.

The NGT in its order had said it “prima facie” agrees that there was the failure of OIL in taking safety precautions and there is a need for ensuring that such incidents do not recur.

“We direct this aspect to be gone into by a six-member committee headed by the Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in consultation with the DG Hydrocarbon and DG Mines Safety, DG Oil Industry Safety and PESO (Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization), Chief Controller of Explosives, New Delhi within three months,” the NGT bench had said.

The said Committee may review the situation and take appropriate remedial measures, including fixing responsibility for the failures of the concerned individuals in the present incident, the NGT had said.

With regard to the issue of accountability for the past compliances and the remedial action, the NGT had also formed another seven-member joint committee.

The last aspect is assessing the damage to the environment and remedial restoration plan, including Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the Maguri-Motapung Wetland, the green panel had said.

“We direct this aspect to be looked into and remedial measures planned by the ten-member Committee headed by the Chief Secretary, Assam, nominees of MoEF&CC and CPCB, Assam Wetland Authority, State Biodiversity Board of Assam, SEIAA Assam, State PCB, Chief Wildlife Warden Assam, District Magistrate, Tinsukia, and Managing Director, OIL,” the NGT had said.

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