Graphite India is a privately held firm with multiple factories across India and a market cap of approximately Rs. 9000 crores.
For 4 decades this factory has been spewing black dust across a large perimeter from its Whitefield (Bengaluru) operations. On April 3, 2019 Graphite India announced that it will shut down its Bengaluru Operations permanently. If there is one lesson to be learnt from this immense victory, it is that the common man is very powerful, every effort counts, and that efforts when united, count most.
For decades people around Graphite India have suffered. Those with the ability to, raised their voice. And those without the ability to, simply suffered. Concerns about the air quality were raised since 1997, by the residents of Seetharampalya and farmers around, but were ignored. In 2009, the Ferns Paradise residents along with Seetharampalya village residents came together as a collective for the first time, and approached the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB). Closure orders and court cases followed in the Appellate Authority, National Green Tribunal, and the Supreme Court. After a TEN year long campaign, we finally have respite. There were numerous defeats in between such as when the Appellate Court ruled in favor of the polluter. But when the truth is in one’s favor, a defeat is merely a victory yet to come.
Whitefield Rising, a firmly non-partisan platform for residents of Mahadevpura (Bengaluru), aims to improve its neighborhood by both increasing accountability of government/businesses while at the same time seeking to change behaviors of the common man that are contributing to the problems of the area. This win against Graphite India is a stellar example of demanding accountability as a united group.
There is a big lesson in this for all of us common people. If you want to do something about a civic problem around you, YOU CAN UNDOUBTEDLY DO IT. While many things can be done alone, here is a primer on how you can achieve a lot as a team.
The Graphite India official case began 10 years ago, though the complaints and issues existed far longer. Ferns Paradise residents observed the source of their problems, joined hands with RxDx – a local hospital and complained to KSPCB with meticulous evidence. KSPCB eventually, after much persistence by the residents, ordered the closure of the factory. But within a week, Graphite India went to Appellate court and got a stay order on the shutdown, thus merrily continuing production.
- Understand the problem and if necessary, use RTI confidently to get details you may not have.
- Gather a supportive group of residents around you. For this, your personal hard work, ability to work with others with respect and sincerity of cause is most essential. If any citizen groups/RWAs already exist, reach out to them and seek support for your cause with the clear knowledge that you will “lead” this and not hand over this issue to them.
- Officially complain to the department concerned – in writing. Nothing moves the government like paper does. Follow the chain of command and complain in all possible departments related – in writing.
- The government will respond! They will call you, and even reprimand various officers for their lapses. We have learnt over time that this is a strategy . You can wait to see if there are results but quite likely you will have to escalate this.
- At this point, preferably work under the umbrella of a larger organization that is respected in public space. Begin using social media to highlight the problem. Groups like Whitefield Rising have a large number of media people who follow it and could pick up the issue you post. Until 2013, there was no such group or possibility for Ferns Paradise as they continued their lonely fight.
Ferns Paradise residents took the legal route, and hired lawyers to fight back in the Appellate Court. After hearings that would sporadically show up, they lost! Despite scientific evidence being provided and one judge recognizing the truth in the evidence. So they appealed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Meanwhile, years were going by. Inspections of the factory were ordered due to repeated complaints. Graphite India would promise to retrofit and address the pollution. Then nothing would happen.
- Recognize that your fight could take years. The key is to stay calm and persist. If you are not in this for the long term, this is not going to work .
- Go Legal. You may need funds. But it is critical to find a good lawyer. This is where you may need the support of a larger group. Through the umbrella of a larger group you could crowdsource for funds while raising more awareness on the issue. People are always willing to support sincere champions leading a public cause provided you are not doing for any self-serving agenda.
- Be ready to keep up the legal fight – escalating it to the right courts even after defeats. If truth is on your side, you have the ultimate weapon.
3 PERSIST MORE! BECAUSE THE UNIVERSE WILL CONSPIRE TO HELP
In 2018, a young student and his mentor rolled out some air pollution sensors across the area to monitor the pollution. The numbers registered were alarming. Whitefield Rising – a citizen group which had been aware of the long fight by the Ferns Paradise residents were angry that such a large rich company was so blatant in its pollution. Even China had ordered all these factories be monitored strictly! Seeing these numbers, the group engaged with the residents and decided to make this a large public interest fight.
Bringing together many residents and elevating the pitch on the campaign made the media take note and raise our voice. With this awareness raised, a unique opportunity to implead with this issue in the Supreme Court came by. In one swift action, the Supreme Court named Graphite India a “Polluter” under the Principal of Polluter Pays! Soon after the NGT had a hearing and overturned the prior Appellate Court ruling! For the first time Graphite India closed operations. A few months later, the company announced a complete shutdown.
- Be meticulous with the paperwork
- Stay firmly true to the cause and capitalize on any support that comes your way. Meet with area representatives – Corporator, MLA, MP, Police and officers in government. Seek knowledge and support. Present the case with evidence and specific asks.
- Be ready to change track and use new opportunities to fight. Ferns Paradise group readily partnered with new people, quickly established trust and hired new legal team with the gravitas to fight this large fight. More residents from the area came in and a mere Rs 1000 per family brought in the funds to take on a giant that could spend crores.
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