The common man vs giant polluting factory
40 years ago, the greater Whitefield Area was an industrial zone. However, over the years as the city grew, the outskirts became part of the city and the area became urbanized, even coming under BBMP. The city allowed for unchecked growth and encouraged a massive number of residences and offices to be built all around, thus changing the character of the area from industrial to residential. In this midst was a factory called Graphite India that manufactured Graphite Electrodes. The manufacturing lends itself to unavoidable release of particulate matter. In their German plant, extensive work has been done to ensure this particulate matter is not released into the atmosphere. But here in India, there was merely a dilapidated structure continuing the work day after day. China, having woken up the environmental impact of such a factory, have strict monitoring controls in place, thus making the India plant even more lucrative as customers around the world naturally transitioned their orders to India.
Residents near and far have been affected by the pollution emerging from Graphite India for decades now. Depending on the wind direction, it was predictable when your house or place of work would have a layer of black dusting every surface no matter how many times you wiped it. Often, a smell would pervade the atmosphere as well. Respiratory issues were routine and no respite seemed possible. Finally, 10 years ago, brave residents of Ferns Paradise on Outer Ring Road decided to act and find a solution. They approached the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) seeking just that the factory work like its German operations – ie with measures to control pollution. For reasons best known to KSPCB, there was no effective action taken and the factory continued as it always had. Worse, the community found itself being intimidated by unusual investigations for sundry issues by BBMP & other government departments. by the KSPCB whenever they initiated action. But the residents persisted and went to court. The legal process as it is wont to, took years and all the while, Graphite India kept spewing. But a big blow came in the form of a disbelieving rejection of the closure order issued by KSPCB in the Appellate Court despite overwhelming evidence. Undeterred, the residents went to NGT. That is where it lay languishing for years while the residents were slowly getting discouraged.
Independently, in July 2018, a resident techie and his student mentee detected an unusual trend. They had been trying to assess the quality of air by deploying a limited number of air pollution monitoring sensors. They found that the numbers around the graphite factory were unusually high – especially in the highly dangerous PM2.5 category. For the first time, residents had numbers that were continually logged day and night and at multiple locations – thus showing an incredible picture of localized pollution. They also determined that it had no correlation to the traffic pattern thus disproving the factory’s claim that the pollution was from vehicular emissions even though the shiny grey/black soot that coated all the surfaces was a give away.
Seeing the data and the long standing residents fight, Whitefield Rising got engaged and decided to amplify this campaign! The case got attention in the media, a successful judgement from the Supreme Court and finally upholding of the previous 2012 KSPCB closure order decision by the NGT. The tide had turned. Bringing other communities in as well as funds to hire lawyers, the case was fought hard until finally Graphite India had to shut down – first temporarily and then permanently.
There is a big learning from this journey. If you are keen to take on a challenge, read more to understand what worked.