Oil India reacts cautiously as seismic survey hits roadblock in Manipur after rebel group abducts sub-contractors

State-owned Oil India Limited (OIL) has abandoned the seismic survey in Manipur for assessing the hydrocarbon deposits after sub-contractors associated with the work were abducted by a rebel group.

A press release issued by OIL cited only "resistance" from the locals as the reason behind the decision to call off the survey at Jiribam located 216 km south west of state capital Imphal. The survey was being carried out by Mumbai based Asian Oilfields on contract from OIL.

 Oil India reacts cautiously as seismic survey hits roadblock in Manipur after rebel group abducts sub-contractors

Oil India chairman and managing director Utpal Bora. Image courtesy Oil India

The statement came hours after its chairman cum managing director Utpal Bora held a meeting with Chief Minister N Biren Singh and highly placed officials at Imphal where the issue about the abductions had also cropped up.

Confirming the incident, Manipur Police DGP LM Khaute told Firstpost, "They (hostages) have been released. Police deployment has been increased in the region and we have told the oil companies to be in touch with us."

It is reliably learnt that two labour sub-contractors tasked to organise daily wagers for the survey were waylaid and taken to remote destinations by a "splinter" group of Naga rebels in separate incidents, interned for some days and then released. Informed sources claimed that the rebel group was also paid ransom for securing their release.

All this and the constant local opposition were enough for both OIL and Asian Oilfields to call it quits until security was strengthened and local groups taken into confidence. The meeting prompted quick action with more security personnel deployed in Jiribam and efforts to pacify village chiefs and local leaders.

Opposition to exploration

The resistance against seismic survey in Manipur was triggered in 2010 after the Netherlands based Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited received the licence for exploration in two oil blocks across Jiribam, Tamenglong and Churachandpur totalling around 4,000 sq km. The contracts were awarded under the eighth round of New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP) of the government but the firm stopped work only two years later following protests from the locals.

Local bodies and civil society organisations were upset as they were not informed by the government about its decisions to allow seismic survey in the state and the global promotions held in major cities like London, Houston, Calgary and Perth inviting bids for oil companies. The deeds for the exploration licenses were also signed in 2010 without the knowledge of these groups.

The stalemate seemed to be broken last year when OIL employed Asian Oilfield to acquire seismic data in the state following a government proposal called the National Seismic Programme (NSP), a flagship programme under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. The NSP aims to undertake a fresh appraisal in all sedimentary basins across India, especially where no or scanty data are available for a better understanding of the hydrocarbon potential of the country. Under this programme, OIL was assigned to carry out 870 km line seismic survey in Manipur out of which only 4.5 km could be achieved during the last field season.

Resumption of operation

An official of the Manipur government claimed that efforts were on to break the deadlock for restarting the survey in Jiribam but did not specify any timeframe for the resumption of the operation.

Asian Oilfield is however optimistic that the survey would commence very soon. Director of the firm Rohit Agarwal who was part of the delegation to meet the chief minister on 29 March informed that negotiations were on with the village chairman in Jiribam for removal of doubts about the operation.

"We have made it clear that our job is to survey which does not mean extraction of oil deposits. Our crew have not been withdrawn from Jiribam. If everything goes according to plan, then we will resume our operation around 20 April for six weeks till the onset of the monsoon," he said.

The government’s focus on Manipur is understandable given the presumption about huge deposits of hydrocarbon in the border state. Media reports quoted the latest annual report of Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited as saying that two blocks in the state have prospective oil resources ranging from 380 billion cubic feet to 1.43 trillion cubic feet.

The protests in Manipur against seismic survey are indicative of the apprehensive among sections of the indigenous populace in the North East on jumbo projects and mining of natural resources. There is a long history of such episodes earlier: in Meghalaya, protestors stalled the extraction of uranium in Domiasiat some years ago; the fate of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydel project in Arunachal Pradesh is hanging fire after large-scale protests broke out at Dhemaji in Assam. And in Nagaland as well, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation was forced to stop all operations in 1994 at Changpang following threats from rebel groups.

The author is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.

Updated Date: Apr 20, 2018 14:43:24 IST