The long road to clean air: Behind the court ruling on GIL’s Whitefield plant

INDUSTRIAL EMISSIONS FROM GRAPHITE PLANT IN WHITEFIELD

For years, residents in Whitefield area have been living with pollution caused by the Graphite India plant that had a factory with a broken roof, spewing smoke directly into the air that left layers of soot everywhere. Pic: Whitefield Rising

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities

The mood in Whitefield and adjoining areas of Bangalore has been upbeat of late. The citizen’s group from the area created history on October 29th by getting a Supreme Court (SC) order which, for the first time, pulled up Graphite India limited (GIL) operating a plant in the area, as a serious offender contributing to air pollution by imposing a fine of INR 50 lakh based on the “polluter pays principle.”

“We are very happy; we entered the SC as intervention petitioners challenging Graphite India Limited (GIL) as a pollutant, with evidence. For the first time, the SC ruled in our favour, affirming that GIL is in fact an air polluter, and imposed a fine on the company. It is a moral and historical victory,” says Zibi Jamal from the Whitefield Rising group.

The residents’ group will now be approaching NGT, KSPCB and following up on the earlier case at the NGT too. “We want GIL to operate within the norms and the citizens to be protected at all times,” said a member of the team.

The ruling

On October 29th, the SC Coram of Judges Madan Lokur, Deepak Gupta and Abdul Nazeer pronounced Graphite India guilty of severe air pollution.

The SC order reads:

“Learned counsel for Graphite India has taken instructions and on the basis of the instructions, he says that he will deposit an amount of Rs.50 lakhs with the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board. The amount is to be deposited within two weeks from today. We expect the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to utilize the amount that is deposited to take care of the pollution in Whitefield.”

“We will go by the instructions of the Apex Court. Our aim is to curb pollution in the state. We will soon convene a meeting of all the stakeholders and discuss what further actions need to be taken,” said KSPCB chairman Lakshman when contacted over phone.

The core issue: Severe air pollution

Residents and commercial establishments located around the Visveshwaraiah Industrial Area have long been suffering due to the excessive pollution caused by various industries located in the industrial area. The industrial area is home to some cement industries, and Graphite India Limited (GIL). Several appeals by the residents to the BBMP and BDA to consider rezoning of this area while preparing the Revised Master Plan fell on deaf ears.

“Fine black soot and dust descends and gets inside our houses, settles on our floors, furniture, clothes, body and on household appliances,” complains a resident and homemaker.

Black soot on the floor of a house neighbouring Graphite plant. Pic: Whitefield Rising

People who have been inhaling the respirable suspended particulate matter (PM) are suffering from various respiratory illnesses – asthma, cough, dizziness, difficulty in breathing, eye irritation, blocking of nose, etc. In many cases, the sputum coughed up is black.

There is also a burning odour and smoke that results in throat and eye irritation. This odour is felt even beyond half a kilometre from the factory. There are reports that trees in Sapota farms in the areas look black instead of green and the produce from the farms is severely impacted, according to the farmers.

RxDx, a multispeciality clinic located right opposite GIL, has reported severe impact on patients undergoing treatment as well as their machines, because of dust from the plant. A garment factory in the area first stopped making white shirts and later moved to a different location because of the graphite dust in the air.

The impacts of the pollution are dependent on the direction of the wind. From November to April, the wind blows the dust towards the west (Doddanekkundi side, with communities such as Ferns Paradise and Ferns City) and between May and October, residences and businesses on the east side are impacted (such as Seetharampalya, RxDx).

Air sensors that monitor PM 2.5 levels on a continuous real time basis were deployed in RxDx in July 2018.

The data revealed values of PM2.5 up to 255 µg/m3 at 2 am in the morning.

The Indian standard for ambient air is 60 µg/m3, while the U.S. standard is 12 µg/m3.

Source: Whitefield Rising

Even GIL workers have been demanding better safety. In 2009, the company’s workers’ union complained to KSPCB about the polluted working premises. KSPCB’s inspection did note the poor maintenance and inadequate safety measures at the factory. Despite the board calling for “regular cleaning, dust suppression, cleaning of machineries, air pollution control equipment”, no such measures have been taken, say workers.

A contract labourer suffering from chest pain and breathing difficulty said that the workers were eating and breathing graphite every day!

Genesis of the legal battle

Way back in 1998 the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) had called for a joint meeting with GIL and local residents. It was a result of persistent complaints filed by the local residents. The KSPCB directed GIL to install pollution control measures as per the guidelines from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). Since GIL didn’t follow the instructions, KSPCB issued a notice and closure order in 2012.

The GIL challenged this closure order of the KSPCB and in 2014, got a legal reprieve from the Karnataka State Appellate Authority, which set aside the closure order on its Bangalore unit after several hearings in 2014. The reasons cited were lack of sufficient evidence to conclusively prove that GIL were the polluters, and not the heavy traffic in Whitefield. The Appellate Authority even accepted the GIL claims that it had abided with the KSPCB norms.

Interestingly, this 2014 order of the Karnataka State Appellate Authority was not decided unanimously by the three-judge bench: While two judges allowed GIL to continue operations, the third judge passed a separate order which upheld the KSPCB order of October 2012 for closure of GIL, suggesting a third party detailed report and study on the issue of air pollution.

Notwithstanding this set back in the Appellate Authority, the residents challenged the 2014 order in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) where the matter is currently pending due to non availability of judges at the tribunal bench.

An interesting twist arose in the ongoing legal battle when the Supreme Court was hearing the issue of needle petroleum (pet) coke and its contribution to air pollution. The Court directed the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), under noted environmentalist Sunita Narain, to tabulate the pollution in Whitefield in a report, which was taken into consideration by the Supreme Court earlier this year on 9th October.

At that time, the apex court issued a notice to GIL directing it to explain the reason for not stopping needle pet coke immediately, as it was “causing tremendous pollution and damage to the health of the community in Bangalore,” and also asked KSPCB to submit its pollution report.

Taking the opportunity to present the matter in the Supreme Court, the Whitefield Rising citizen campaign filed an intervention petition successfully and were able to present evidence of fugitive emissions (which escape from the broken sheds), apart from stack pollution (emissions directed out of chimneys).

The SC then ruled that GIL is a polluter and imposed a fine of INR 50 lacs based on the polluter pays principle on 29th October 2018.

The irony

With Chinese graphite factories shutting down under pressure from green initiatives, Indian graphite makers have had to go full blast to meet the soaring demand. Graphite India shares had risen 1200% since the beginning of the year.

GIL has six factories in India. In Bengaluru, their factory had a broken roof which spewed smoke directly, registering PM2.5 of 250µg/m3 per day; this went on for years till the apex court stepped in and penalised them. Ironically, the Graphite COVA GmbH factory that it operates in Nuremberg is fully compliant with European standards that mandate PM2.5 levels below 10µg/m3 for the year and below 25µg/m3 for a day.

“The policy guideline of GIL states that it conducts business with a respect for the environment at every stage of its product cycle across all its plants. The company has made substantial investments in various pollution control equipment over the past few years,” reads the statement on its corporate website.

[In Part 2, we shall be looking at the role of KSPCB and whether the permanent shut down of the plant looks likely.]
This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities, and explores the root causes for air pollution and solutions for improving air quality in Bengaluru and Chennai. This series has supported with a grant from Climate Trends.

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2 Comments

  1. THERE ARE ABOUT 1000 FAMILIES DIRECTLY DEPENDING ON GRAPHITE INDIA.SO CLOSURE IS NOT THE ANSWERE.LET EVERYBODY INVOLVED INCLUDING M P , MR. P C MOHAN FIND SOME SOLUTION WITHOUT CLOSURE OF GRAPHITE PLANT.POLLUTION FROM CONSTRUCTION ACTIVITY AS WELL AS DEBRIS TRANSPORTATION ARE MORE IN THE AREA.PLEASE MONITOR THESE THINGS ALSO.

  2. Meanwhile we requesting to look into pollution due to vehicles carbon dioxide air… Like government buses, lorry, cars and bikes its very big pollution and destroying whole Bangalore..

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