International Webinar on Pesticides Poisonings in India demands Syngenta to acknowledge liability of its product Polo

PAN India, PAN AP, Public Eye and ECCHR | 26th June 2021

Press Note

An international webinar titled ‘Pesticides Poisonings in India : implications for business accountability and regulatory reform’ was organised yesterday 24thJune, 2021. The webinar discussed the quest for justice and accountability of a group of Indian farmers who were poisoned by a pesticide marketed by the Swiss agrochemical giant, Syngenta, and shed light on the way forward for regulating pesticides use both in India and Europe.

The webinar was jointly organised by the Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPPP), the Pesticides Action Network (PAN India) and PAN Asia Pacific together with Public Eye and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).  The webinar discussed various aspects of the unfortunate incidents of occupational poisonings of farmers and farm workers in Yavatmal district in Maharashtra India.

 

Background

In 2017, hundreds of small-scale farmers and farm workers were poisoned – and over 20 died – in just a few weeks whilst spraying pesticides on cotton fields in the district of Yavatmal. A key product involved was the insecticide Polo, manufactured by Syngenta.

The use of Polo’s active ingredient diafenthiuron is long banned in Switzerland and the European Union but Syngenta keeps selling it in countries where regulations are weaker and less strictly enforced. In 2017, Syngenta exported 75 tonnes of diafenthiuron from Switzerland to India. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) investigated the poisoning in Yavatmal, identified several policy measures and recommended to ban multiple product formulations that were responsible for most of the deaths, including diafenthiuron. Although temporary bans were adopted, today all products are again available on the Indian market.

In September 2020, Public Eye, ECCHR, PAN India and MAPPP filed a “specific instance” with the Swiss national contact point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, on behalf of a group of 51 affected farmers, to demand that Syngenta provides remedy and changes its sales practices in India. At the same time, a claim for compensation was filed in the court of Basel, by the law firm Schadensanwälte on behalf of the families of two victims who died and a farmer who was severely injured due to the exposure to the pesticide Polo.

In October 2020, Switzerland decided to prohibit the export of five highly hazardous pesticides including diafenthiuron. Just a few weeks later, the Responsible Business initiative, which proposed to introduce mandatory human rights due diligence requirements for Swiss companies like Syngenta, was narrowly rejected.

 

Panel Discussions in the webinar

In the opening session of the webinar, Sri Dewanand Pawar, convenor of MAPPP, highlighted the sufferings of the farming community who were poisoned by the pesticide Polo in Yavatmal in 2017. Farmers and farm labour suffered a lot, due to the harmful impact of pesticides, even as the District hospital was overwhelmed by the sudden influx, impacting treatment.

In the following presentation, Mr. Dileep Kumar of PAN India shared details and evidences of harm caused by the pesticide polo from the agrochemical giant Syngenta in Yavatmal based on pesticide poisoning assessment that PAN India conducted in the region. During 2018 and 2019 PAN India team reached out to many of the victims of pesticide poisoning and gathered details such as medical records and police records, container of the pesticides and purchase bills. Citing the police record, Dileep noted that ‘the exclusively accessed police record through the provisions of Right to Information Act itself showed 94 incidents of polo poisonings’.  He added that ‘PAN India’s assessment revealed conclusive evidences of polo usage and consequent poisoning among 54 victims including two deaths’.  He also spoke about the illness and injuries suffered by the victims of poisonings.  He also mentioned the importance of comprehensive and strong pesticide legislation and monitoring so as to eliminate the harms caused by toxic pesticides.

Christian Schliemann (Senior Legal Advisor, from the ECCHR) discussed the quest for justice and accountability in Switzerland with regard to the poisoning happened in Yavatmal India. He stressed the need of making multinational companies accountable when their products contribute to harm and human rights. He also spoke about the so-called product liability law, which in a nutshell that makes the manufacturer of a product responsible for the harm that users suffer due to defects in the product. He mentioned that a complaint was filed in Swiss National Contact Point of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation Development against Syngenta for violating the OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. He added that two women who lost their husbands due to pesticides poisonings and one farmer who suffered severe health consequences after spraying Polo have filed a lawsuit in civil court in Switzerland demanding compensation for the harm suffered.

In the following session, Ms Anina Dalbert (legal advisor of Public Eye) highlighted the need for an export ban of hazardous pesticides and mandatory human rights due diligence to be followed by the multinational companies such as Syngenta. An export ban for pesticides banned in Switzerland has entered into force at the beginning of this year. Anina stated that they “will keep working towards mandatory human rights due diligence in Switzerland to prevent such human rights violations as well as to hold Swiss based multinationals accountable”

Dr. Narasimha Reddy of PAN India (Honorary director of PAN India, & Policy Expert) spoke about the regulatory lacunae in India. Because of this, agrochemical companies are able to escape from product liability and corporate accountability. He highlighted several directions for improving the pesticide regulatory regime. Pesticide management should be decentralised with powers to State governments, so that the regulatory response is quicker and practical.

Concluding the session, Ms Sarojeny Rengam (Executive Director of PAN AP) who was moderating the session said “we need a justice and accountability for the farmers and agricultural workers who were poisoned by pesticides in Yavatmal produced and marketed by Syngenta."  The burden of proof should be be not on farmers who are poisoned".

The panellists highlighted the need for better and comprehensive regulation of pesticides taking into account the corporate accountability and liability, so that potential poisonings and harms caused by pesticides can be prevented.

 

Contacts:

Dr. Narasimha Reddy PAN India  nreddy.donthi20@gmail.com

Dileep Kumar A. D, PAN India  dileep@pan-India.org

Christian Schliemann, ECCHR  schliemann@ecchr.eu

Ms Sarojeny Rengam PAN AP sarojeni.rengam@panap.net

Ms Anina Dalbert, Public Eye  anina.dalbert@publiceye.ch

 

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