In 2O17 about 800 agricultural workers in eastern Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district fell ill after spraying pesticide on cotton fields; at least 20 of them died. They had all been using a pesticide called Polo, manufactured by the global agrochemical giant Syngenta. The company exported Polo even though it had been banned in Switzerland since 2009 because of its harmful effects on health and the environment.
Syngenta rejected any responsibility and said there was no evidence that Polo was involved in the deaths and the poor health of those affected. The European Chemicals Agency has classed Diafenthiuron, one of the active ingredients in Polo, as “poisonous when inhaled” and “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.”.
On September 17 three years later, affected families and victims have taken the legal route to get justice and have filed lawsuits against Syngenta in a civil court in Basel, Switzerland. According to a release issued by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) India, Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (PANAP), the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Public Eye , an investigative journal, “51 affected families filed a specific instant at the Swiss OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] National Contact Point, and three victims filed lawsuits against the agrochemical corporation Syngenta in a civil court in Basel, Switzerland, on 17th September, demanding monetary compensation for loss of lives and sufferings. This is the first time, ever, where victims of pesticide poisoning have reached this stage, especially from India.”
PAN India is a public interest research and advocacy non-profit organisation working with the aim of reducing dependence on toxic chemicals in agriculture and other sectors. Working with partner organisations, PAN obtained documents that showed that Polo did contribute significantly to the 2017 tragedy. Pan says, “According to the documents, the police recorded 96 cases of poisoning linked to Syngenta’s pesticide, two of which led to fatalities. On the basis of these facts and further research, the Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPP) together with Pan India and PANAP, ECCHR and Public Eye documented the fate of 51 farmer families.”
Survivors of the poisoning reported severe post-Polo spraying symptoms like temporary blindness, nausea, breathing difficulties, neurological and muscular complaints and even unconsciousness for some days. In some people the effects continue and have reduced their ability to work and earn. All the above organisations have come together to support the families of the victims by filing a specific instance with the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. A specific instance is when one raises a complaint about the conduct of a company that is inconsistent with the Guidelines.
The organisations are demanding that “Syngenta refrain from selling hazardous pesticides to small-scale farmers in India that require Personal Protective Equipment 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.”
Apart from the specific instance that has been filed, PAN India says a specialist law firm in Basel has put together a claim for compensation based on product liability since Diafenthiuron came from Switzerland. In what seems to be a well-rounded attack plan, the Responsible Business Initiative (which goes by its Swiss acronym KVI) has also been involved since it was a case of human rights violations caused by the foreign subsidiaries of a company. The Responsible Business Initiative (“Konzernverantwortungsinitiative”) is an attempt by a coalition of Swiss civil society organisations to hold Swiss companies responsible for human rights abuses abroad. The idea was met with much resistance and its fate is expected to be decided in November by public referendum.
On its website, Syngenta has rejected the Public Eye report saying, “The Public Eye report is politically motivated and deliberately misleading – its rhetoric is designed to scare the public and promote the Responsible Business Initiative in Switzerland. The report is based on a “highly hazardous” list developed by PAN, which is not recognised by any national or international organisation. “