The origin of the feral horses of Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) dates back to the 1940’s when Assam was a major base for the allied forces in the South-Asian theatre of World War II. The feral horses were brought by the British as cavalry horses for their soldiers stationed in and around Tinsukia District to fight back the advancing Japanese army. After the war got over, the British army instead of taking back the feral horses, released them in the wilderness. Thereafter, during the 1950’s Assam Earthquake, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries changed course cutting off the said area from the mainland, which further isolated the feral horses. The present-day feral horses living in the wild are descendants of the same warhorses brought by the British army. The feral horses survived the World War II as well as the 1950’s Assam Earthquake, but today the feral horses along with other wildlife of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and its adjoining areas face a different threat, in the form of Oil and Gas mining.
On 27th May, 2020 a gas and oil well of Oil India Ltd., maintained by John Energy Ltd., known as Baghjan-5 had a blowout leading to a massive release of gas, crude and condensate into the environment. Thereafter, on 9th June 2020, the said well caught fire leading to large scale destruction in the adjoining areas, which still continues to burn. The Baghjan-5 well is around 300 metres from the boundary of the buffer forest and merely 900 metres from the core area of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the fourth largest protected area in Assam after Kaziranga and Manas National Parks and the Marat Longri Wildlife Sanctuary. The Baghjan-5 well is within the Dibru-Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve and the Maguri-Motapung Beel (wetland), which is an Important Bird Area (IBA) located next to the well is facing the brunt of the blowout and fire.
The entire area is part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity hotspot, one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots across the globe. According to Conservation International, a Biodiversity hotspot region is one that has lost around 70% of their original habitat, yet the remaining natural habitat in these biodiversity hotspots which amount to just 2.4% of the land surface of the planet, supports nearly half of the world’s plant species and nearly 43% of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species as endemics, i.e., species found no place else.
The Baghjan-5 well was operating from 2005 till 2018 within the eco-sensitive zone of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, wherein ‘commercial mining’ is prohibited. And as per the Supreme Court order of 2006 in the Goa Foundation case, mandatory clearance from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) is also required before any project is implemented within the eco-sensitive zone. Baghjan-5 is not known to have any such clearances. Thereafter in order to by-pass the said violation and facilitate mining, the eco-sensitive zone around Dibru Saikhowa National Park was brought down from 10 Km to 9.144 km to 0 Km in the Southern Boundary of Dibru Saikhowa National Park by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, ignoring its own policies and guidelines, including frustrating the very purpose of creating eco-sensitive zones to act as “shock absorbers” to Protected Areas.
The Hon’ble Apex Court in Centre for Environmental Law, World Wide Fund India vs. Union of India and Others observed that “Anthropocentrism is always human interest focussed thinking that non-human has only instrumental value to humans, in other words, humans take precedence and human responsibilities to non-human are based on benefits to humans. Ecocentrism is nature-centred, where humans are part of nature and non-humans have intrinsic value. In other words, human interest does not take automatic precedence and humans have obligations to non-humans independently of human interest. Ecocentrism is, therefore, life-centred, nature-centred where nature includes both humans and non-humans.”
But in the Baghjan-5 case ‘Anthropocentrism’ has taken automatic precedence over ‘Ecocentrism’, as without considering the damage that a gas and oil well can do in the event of a blowout or fire was allowed to operate right next to a Protected Area, an Important Bird Area and inside a Biosphere Reserve, throwing all caution to the wind. It is not surprising that a Site Inspection Report of 2013 regarding Oil and Gas Pipelines in Upper Assam submitted to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) had made the following stinging observation – “We are deeply distressed that OIL as a leading public sector company, instead of serving as a beacon for environmental compliance to others in the industry, appears to have evaded environmental norms.” Yet gas and oil mining continued next to a protected area unmindful of the threat it poses to the ecological security of the land, which is a failure on the part of the State to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country as mandated under Article 48A of the Constitution of India.
At this stage, it will probably be difficult to ascertain the exact scale and the long-term damage that the Baghjan-5 blowout and subsequent fire has done to the ecology and biota of Dibru Saikhowa National Park, the Maguri-Motapung Beel (wetland) and the adjacent rivers as the fire is still burning. But from what is being reported so far by the local people as well as by the media, the destruction of the environment seem to be substantial. Unfortunately, we would not be hearing from the feral horse’s mouth nor from the other voiceless non-humans most affected by it.
The writer is an Advocate & Environmental Lawyer