In landmark move, Yavatmal pesticide contact poisoning victims file case in Bern against agrochemical company Syngenta

In 2017, over 60 farmers died, and hundreds were affected reportedly by the increased use of pesticides sprayed without any protective gear, on the cotton crop in Yavatmal and other districts of Maharashtra.

Meena Menon September 27, 2020 12:00:00 IST
In landmark move, Yavatmal pesticide contact poisoning victims file case in Bern against agrochemical company Syngenta

Representational image. REUTERS/File Photo

In a first, a group of farmers from Yavatmal, Maharashtra, who suffered from contact pesticide poisoning in 2017, have filed a complaint along with their families, against the Switzerland-based agrochemical multinational company Syngenta in two separate instances. Syngenta manufactures the pesticide Polo which many of the farmers used to spray on cotton.

In 2017, over 60 farmers died, and hundreds were affected reportedly by the increased use of pesticides sprayed without any protective gear, on the cotton crop in Yavatmal and other districts of Maharashtra.

The victim’s families have been assisted by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) India and Asia Pacific, the Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPPP), the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR; an independent, non-profit legal and educational organisation dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide) and Public Eye, an independent media investigation and research agency based in Lausanne and Zurich.

On 17 September, 51 affected families filed a specific instance (a Specific Instance raises a complaint about conduct by an enterprise that is alleged to be inconsistent with the recommendations contained in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises) at the Swiss OECD National Contact Point in Bern. Under the guidelines, all governments are required to establish a National Contact Point (NCP) to hear complaints by communities or workers harmed by corporate activity.

The specific instance complaint seeks remedy for violating OECD Guidelines Chapters II, IV and VII by Syngenta AG, and Syngenta India Ltd. for selling its pesticide Polo to the Yavatmal farmers who subsequently suffered severe negative health impacts from pesticide poisoning.

The farmers are demanding that Syngenta refrain from selling hazardous pesticides to small-scale farmers in India, the use of which requires Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to small  and for which – like in the case of Polo – no antidote is available in case of poisoning. In addition, the company should pay compensation to the 51 victim families for treatment costs and loss of income.

In a separate matter, also on 17 September, a survivor of poisoning and two women whose husbands died due to contact poisoning, filed lawsuits against Syngenta in a civil court in Bern, demanding monetary compensation for loss of lives and suffering, according to Dr Narasimha Reddy, advisor to PAN India and the (MAPPP). The claim is based on product liability, as one of the active ingredients in the pesticide Polo (diafenthiuron) came directly from Switzerland. ECCHR supports the complainants, who are represented by its partner law firm Schadenanwaelte. This legal step is being taken independently of the OECD NCP specific instance, which these parties are not involved in, PAN India clarified.

Polo contains an active ingredient called ‘diafenthiuron’, which is on the list of substances and preparations that are banned or subject to severe restrictions in Switzerland. According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), diafenthiuron is “poisonous when inhaled” and it “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”.

According to ECCHR, Polo was banned in the EU in 2002; in Switzerland, it was taken off the market in 2009. In March 2017, diafenthiuron was added to the European list of substances that are banned because of their effects on health and the environment. Nevertheless, Syngenta continues to market the pesticide Polo in the Global South, such as India. In 2018, Syngenta International AG denied the allegations that Polo is responsible for the poisoning cases. This correspondent has reached out to Syngenta for comment and the report will be updated when they respond.

In 2018, Firstpost published a report based on information under obtained by this correspondent under the Right to Information (RTI). The police records obtained under RTI show 22 deaths and 349 affected by pesticide poisoning in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra, in 2017. Only in five deaths did the police file cases against pesticide dealers under section 304(a) of the Indian Penal Code (causing death by negligence and the Insecticide Act). Most of those who died had used monocrotophos as one of the chemicals they sprayed and a mixture of toxic pesticides. The RTI records indicate that Polo is another popular insecticide and at least 80 of those affected reported using it, along with other chemicals, at times.

Dr Narasimha Reddy said this was a landmark in the struggles against pesticides in India. To find evidence and file cases was an enormous challenge but PAN India had already conducted an investigation after the 2017 deaths and produced a report. It documented 250 cases of farmers who were affected, making detailed records of health care and symptoms. Hospitals kept poor records and often the names of the pesticides were missing. The treatment protocol also left much to be desired and they were all medico-legal cases, which should have been investigated by the police. This did not happen, Dr Reddy said. The farmers had evidence in the form of bills but at times companies took away the bills, on the pretext that the government was giving a compensation of Rs 4,000. This has happened in Yavatmal in the case of farmers who bought Polo.

“Once we began documenting these cases, the name of Polo kept cropping up and the symptoms too were typical — eye burning, loss of sight for 10 days to a month. Some had very rudimentary treatment and even after 2-3 years they suffered from weakness and their eyes are photosensitive to sunlight and they cannot work in the sun,” he said.

The PAN report identified chronic issues faced by the farmers; a majority of the cases seemed to be related to Polo, Dr Reddy added. Once the PAN report became public in 2018, there was a lot of interest in seeking legal action and that is how the case transpired. While the families of those who died due to poisoning were paid Rs 2 lakh as compensation from the government, this was not adequate and not all received it. A public interest litigation filed by social activist Anand Jammu in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, resulted in the compensation being increased to Rs 4 lakh in March 2018. The court had also directed the state government to seek the ban of five pesticides by writing to the Centre, and this included diafenthiuron.

The complaints are filed in the framework of the Responsible Business Initiative, part of an international movement and member of the European Coalition for Corporate Justice under which companies will be legally obliged to incorporate respect for human rights and the environment in all their business activities. This mandatory due diligence will also be applied to Swiss based companies’ activities abroad.

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