Yavatmal poisonings: Syngenta’s pesticide far more heavily involved

More people affected, more severe damage to health: the cases of poisonings 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. As a result, 51 affected families are filing today a specific instant at the Swiss OECD National Contact Point.

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. In 36 of them Polo was used exclusively. 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, MAPP, PAN India, PAN AP, ECCHR and Public Eye have filed a specific instance with the National Contact Point (NCP) for the 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. Due to the limitation period on the case that expires in mid-September, this legal step is being taken in parallel to but independently of the NCP specific instance, which these three parties are not involved in.

For more information contact:

Oliver Classen, Media Director Public Eye, +41 44 277 79 06, oliver.classen@publiceye.ch
Anabel Bermejo, Media Director ECCHR, +49 30 698 197 97, presse@ecchr.eu

* Polo is an insecticide with the active ingredient ‘Diafenthiuron’ which was taken off the market in Switzerland in 2009. It is on the list of chemicals subject to PIC, which means that the ingredient was banned to protect the environment or human health. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has classed Diafenthiuron as “toxic if inhaled” and stated that it “may cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure”.

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