The incidents of occupational pesticide poisoning in 2017 by Syngenta’s “Polo” in the Indian region of Yavatmal took place on a far larger scale than previously thought. This is shown by exclusively accessed documents, yet the Basel-based agro-chemical firm still sells its highly toxic product in India. 51 affected families filed a specific instant at the Swiss OECD National Contact Point, and three victims filed lawsuit against the agrochemical corporation Syngenta in a civil court in Basal, Switzerland on 17 th September, demanding monetary compensation for loss of lives and sufferings.
In autumn 2017, hundreds of cotton farmers were severely poisoned by pesticides in the region of Yavatmal in central India. Reports by PAN India and Public Eye documented the context and the consequences. Syngenta categorically denied any responsibility for the health and financial consequences of the events, claiming that there is “absolutely no evidence” that Polo* was at all involved in the cases of poisoning. The world’s largest producer of pesticides even officially objected, completely in vain, to a documentary from Yavatmal produced and broadcasted by the Swiss National TV.
Official documents obtained by our partner organisations now demonstrate the significant role played by Polo in this tragedy and its ongoing ramifications. 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 local Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPPP), together with the Pesticide Action Network India (PAN India) and Asia Pacific (PAN AP), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Public Eye documented the fate of 51 farmer families.
Survivors of the poisoning report that after spraying Polo, they suffered severe symptoms. 44 of the 51 victims, most of whom were hospitalised, reported temporary blindness and 16 people were unconscious for several days. Other symptoms ranged from nausea to breathing difficulties to neurological and muscular complaints, some of which are ongoing today. As a result, people were often temporarily unable to work, which drastically reduced their already low incomes.
The case is a further example of the grave human rights violations Swiss companies can cause and the extent to which firms now can choose whether – or not – to take on responsibility. The Responsible Business Initiative is a decisive step towards making firms live up to their responsibility and towards preventing such incidents. Due diligence requirements would finally force Syngenta to take the numerous risks associated with its products seriously and to guarantee that there will not be another Yavatmal.
To support victims’ families, MAPPP, PAN India, PAN AP, ECCHR and Public Eye have filed a specific instance with the National Contact Point (NCP) for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises. Together, they are demanding that Syngenta refrain from selling hazardous pesticides to small-scale farmers in India that require Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 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.
The police documents provide evidence of two fatalities linked to Polo. Together with the surviving relatives and a third survivor of a case of poisoning, a specialist law firm in Basel has put together a claim for compensation based on product liability, as one of the active ingredients in the pesticide (Diafenthiuron) came directly from Switzerland. The lawsuit is field in the Civil court of the canton of Basel-Stadt (arbitration authority) by lawyers named Silvio Riesen, Thibaut Meyer from lawfirm Schadenanwälte. This legal step is being taken in parallel to but independently of the OECD NCP specific instance, which these parties are not involved in.
The Responsible Business Initiative would ensure that in cases of human rights violations caused by foreign subsidiaries of a company, liability for compensation would also apply to the company headquarters as a matter of course if the Swiss headquarters could have prevented the violations by exercising adequate duty of care. This is the first time, ever, where victims of pesticide poisoning have reached this stage, especially from India.