After NDTV's report on widespread pollution by graphite plant in Bengaluru's bustling Whitefield, the Supreme Court has decided to take up the case and issued a notice to Graphite India Limited. The concerns of the residents of Whitefield were brought to the court's notice by an expert panel today.
Sunita Narain, environmentalist and member of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), told the court that Graphite India was supposed to use imported needle coke which has low sulphur content. "But we realised that it was still using Indian pet coke. We called the company, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) and discussed the issue. We have submitted our report to the court," Ms Narain said.
Graphite India will respond on Friday, when the court will also examine whether to cancel the permission given to the company for importing pet coke.
The petcoke being burned in countless factories and plants is contributing to dangerously filthy air in India, which already has many of the world's most polluted cities.
The residents of Whitefield have been battling soot released from the graphite plant for several years now. The soot is everywhere -- floors, walls, wardrobes and even food.
Birundha D, who has been living in Whitefield for a decade now, said, "This is not vehicular pollution. This is the same dust that is left when you sharpen your pencils."
But soot-covered surfaces are only a part of the problem. The black graphite dust is a major health hazard. Children as well as adults have developed breathing problems and allergies.
"We are breathing and eating the soot. Kids are suffering from asthma, mainly due to prolonged exposure," Nivedita Gowda, another resident, said.
"The factory's German unit produces the same product. But they are doing it beautifully there. They have an environment team in place," Ms Gowda said.
The factory was set up in the 1970s, when it lay on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Now Whitefield is a major commercial and residential hub.
The residents first complained about the factory to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) in 1980.
"We have recorded complaints from 1997. There were KSPCB hearings in 1998 and the factory was asked to produce a report on how they were going to reduce the pollution they were causing. Nothing was done. The directions were repeated in 2004 and the factory was instructed to fix their sheds and machinery," Ms Gowda said.
In 2012, she added, the KSPCB issued a closure order but the factory got a stay order and continued to run.
The residents approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) five years ago, but they say nothing was done to help them.
MK Chhajer, assistant vice president (Finance), Graphite India Limited, clarified that the emissions from the factory are within the norms prescribed by the Pollution Board.
"Besides emission from the factory, emissions from traffic, construction activity, including the Metro and other industries must also be taken into account," he said.
He added that the matter was already decided in the company's favour by the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal in June 2013. "The complainants then filed an appeal before the National Green Tribunal, Chennai. This appeal has still not been decided. In these circumstances, it would not be correct to comment on the issue."
Zibi Jamal of residents' group Whitefield Rising told NDTV, "This is something we have been campaigning for more than 20 years. More and more people are living here, plenty of companies have come here and the issues continue."
Pointing towards one of the factory buildings, Ms Jamal said, "That is the main graphitisation unit of Graphite India Ltd. It is in operation round the clock. Its roof is broken. The dust escapes through the roof," she said.
The air pollution in Whitefield has grown rapidly over the years.
"Whitefield Rising has developed an indigenous air quality monitoring unit called Air Care. It specifically measures PM2.5 particles. We have 12 monitors through Whitefield which upload data at five minute intervals. On one side, the PM2.5 is at 95 while the Indian standard is 60. On the other side of the factory, away from the stacks, it is 38. We have had readings like 255 at 2 AM," Ms Jamal explained.
The hospital across the road from the factory is the worst affected. Air quality maintenance and cleanliness are big issues.
Dr Gurmeet, a paediatric allergist at the RxDx hospital, said that the impact of the pollution is "devastating".
"I have been working here for the last 10 years. In the last couple of years there has been a 35 per cent increase in respiratory issues in children. Sometimes when kids cough or throw up, we find a black residue," Dr Gurmeet said.