Three-judge Supreme Court bench to hear EPFO pleas

By PTI

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Thursday ousted Assam Chief Secretary and Oil India Ltd’s managing director from a 10-member panel set up by NGT and substituted it with a five-member committee for suggesting remedial action after assessing the environmental damage caused by a major fire in Assam’s Baghjan oil well of the PSU last year.

The top court said the new committee would be chaired by Justice BP Katakey, former judge of the Gauhati High Court.

The 10-member panel was constituted by the National Green Tribunal with Assam Chief Secretary as its chairman and OIL’s managing director as member.

The Baghjan pipe oil well had caught fire and caused extensive damage to flora and fauna in the area.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and Hima Kohli which directed the public sector undertaking OIL to deposit Rs 50 lakh for the expenses of the newly constituted panel, said the committee shall submit its interim report after making an interim assessment of the damages to the biodiversity and environment so that adequate remedial measures could be taken at the earliest.

“”The NGT has constituted a large committee consisting of 10-members. Such a large committee in the first place may find it difficult to convene at relatively short intervals, something which is necessary to ensure the work of taking remedial measures is taken up with all expedition,” the bench said.

It said that the Green panel has directed that the Chief Secretary of Assam would be the chairperson of the 10-member committee but considering the onerous responsibility which is entrusted to the office of Chief Secretary, “we are of the view that it would not be appropriate to task the chief secretary personally in taking up this task, which is more or less of adjudicatory nature combining expert domain knowledge of issues pertaining to environmental concerns”.

The bench said that the court is of the view that “it was not appropriate for the NGT to direct the presence of the managing director of OIL as a member of the committee” which was tasked to assess the damage to the restoration of Dibru Saikhowa National Park (DSNP) and Magori-Motapung wetland and other surviving issues of the earlier panel.

“We are of the considered view that it will be appropriate to direct that the 10-member committee constituted by the NGT shall be substituted by a new committee chaired by Justice BP Katakey, former judge of the Gauhati High Court,” the bench said.

Rejecting the objections raised by OIL on Justice (retd) Katakey heading the panel, the bench said since Justice (retd) Katakey has already attempted a fair amount of work pursuant to the task entrusted by the NGT, there is no reason why the committee should not have the benefit of the work which has already been done and the expertise of its chairperson.

The bench said that other members of the committee would be Ritesh Kumar, Director of Wetland International, South Asia, GS Dang, ex-deputy director Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun, Qamar Qureshi Professor Wildlife Institute of India and Bedanta Bordoloi.

“The committee is requested to take up the work at its earlier convenience and to endeavour to submit its report within a period of three months.

The committee shall be at liberty to make an interim determination of the damages, so that suitable direction can be issued for OIL to deposit the amount”, the bench added.

It said that the committee is also at liberty to take interim-remedial measures and suggest final remedial measures in the report.

It said an interim report by the panel shall be submitted to the court within one month and the matter be listed a week thereafter.

The top court noted that the appeal filed by environmental activist Bonani Kakkar arises from an order of NGT dated February 19, 2021 and the issue relates to an oil blowout that took place at the Baghjan pipe oil well of the OIL on May 27, 2020.

“It has been stated that as a consequence of the accident, extensive damage and destruction was caused to the biodiversity of DSNP and Biosphere Reserve.

The National Green Tribunal constituted a committee of experts joined by Justice BP Katakey by an order dated June 24, 2020”, it said.

The top court said that the preliminary report submitted by the panel on July 24, 2020 indicated the damage to publicly owned resources, including Maguri-Motapung wetland, DSNP, eco-sensitive zone including water bodies, air and wildlife; damage to private property of survivors in affected villages; no consent with OIL to establish and to operate under provisions of both Water and Air Acts when it first started its drilling operations in Well Baghjan-5 in 2006.

It said that OIL did not have requisite consent for carrying out drilling and testing of hydrocarbons in Well Baghjan-5 under the DSNP Area, except for the years 2008-09, 2012-13, 2018-19, under the law.

The top court said that the panel had found that 35 varieties of fish species belonging to 13 families, many of which are completely wiped out; drastic decline in water Oxygen levels which have resulted in high mortality in marine life.

The NGT has noted in its order that about 9000 persons were displaced from their houses and accommodated in camps at a cost of Rs 11.17 crores and about 3000 families were paid Rs 30,000 each, apart from Rs 20 lakhs, which was paid to 11 families, whose houses were burnt.

On August 23, the top court had taken an exception to the presence of OIL’s managing director in the panel constituted by the NGT to suggest remedial actions after assessing the environmental damage saying “Oil India cannot be a judge in its own cause”.