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Normalization of a Disaster (2020 )

Full HD Video, Color, Sound

08:35 mins, 16:9
Baghjan, Assam

People who grow up in Assam are acquainted with the word ‘disaster’ at a rather early age. Bearing an uncanny synonymity with the phases of monsoon in the region, it’s a word that has been enforced into the local psyche through a systematic acquaintance, right from innocent topics in lower school textbooks, up to repeatedly sensationalized primetime headlines in local media outlets on television screens and newspapers. People come to accept the Brahmaputra Valley floods as a mere consequence of living in the region, with the effect of such events being brought down to a stagnant, almost hypnotic state of normalisation.

With every disaster, there is a clear split of demographics as observed. There are the victims and the survivors of the disaster, those who suffer the most, facing the brunt of the disaster’s repercussions. Then there are the front-line workers who orchestrate the management of the aftermath. Disasters such as the Baghjan Oil-blowout bring forward the third kind of associates, the curious onlookers, the ones who make such disasters an object of spectacle to be posed, pictured, and shared with their digital network: the disaster tourists. These disaster tourists reinforce the state of normalisation within the populace and reflect upon the daily lives of the unaffected neighbours.

The Baghjan Oil Blowout happened on 27th of May 2020, which caught fire through a massive explosion on 9th of June 2020 after leaking gas in the atmosphere for two weeks, continued to burn for 6 months, before being finally doused on 15th of November, 2020. This artificial disaster in an Oil-India Limited owned site has caused the displacement of more than 1600 families who were in the vicinity of the site of gas blowout, and are currently being sheltered in makeshift relief camps in nearby areas. The haphazardness in organization within such camps prevent any kind of social-distancing protocols, and the villagers have mostly been left to themselves to cater for their individual and collective needs. The assessment of environmental damage caused by the blowout to the adjacent ecological hotspots of Dibru-Saikhowa National park and the Maguri Motapung wetland areas are yet to be done.

To know of the disaster’s occurrence was a shock initially, augmented by a denial of sorts towards the consequences of such a happening. Beyond the shock, what was alarming for me was the disbelief turning into indifference that I had felt during the course of the blowout amplified by the pandemic.

Even though taking up the camera as a tool against the explosion was reactionary, I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the people who had been displaced. I couldn’t think of any context that would justify me trying to document the reality of the people of Baghjan village. The thought of trying to understand the humanistic side of the chaos was overwhelming. I visited the schools and public institutions that had been converted to house the displaced multiple times, talked a lot with the people. Usually, the air inside these settlements was light, due to the playing children and young ones. Back home, any attempt to write about the people or even think about recording anything at all was immediately overpowered by the conflict in acknowledging the entitlement which me being in my house brought along. Looking at the fire on the other hand proved to be much easier. 

The first evening that I visited the site was shocking not just by the scale of the accident but also the magnitude of people who had turned up to experience the disaster firsthand from behind a ‘safety gate’. I was there, one of them. Every subsequent visit to the fire and back home would keep adding fuel to this battle. The desire to create would constantly be questioned by the privilege of safety. This conflict guided the narrative of this film. The significant scale and implications of the blowout were normalized by the monotony of my daily routine.

For the duration of the blowout, for about six months, a section of the sky above my hometown was lit in bright orange. We’d sit in the terrace of my house with my friends, doing things one would usually do in a small town, often inevitably looking up towards the fire and romanticizing it. I felt a sense of helplessness in the guise of indifference which I tried to mirror through the work.

Subsequently over the months, the video work has become a personal reminder of the hyper-normalized stance of observers towards calamities. This stance has been adapted almost as a meta-culture in people’s everyday reality. The work on Baghjan Blowout has opened up a conversation that questions my own position as an ‘observer’ juxtaposed over the position of being an artist. 

A couple of months back I had last visited Baghjan. The landscape of the village had started showing signs of getting back to the normality it had known before the fire. The simplicity of life had started to reclaim the black voids left behind by the blowout. Some have started to rebuild their houses; some have moved away from the village to other places. The people there are still fighting the battle of getting fairly compensated from Oil India Limited.

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