On 17 September 2020, the Indian Pesticide Action Networks of India and Asia Pacific, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and Public Eye filed, together with the Maharashtra Association of Pesticides Poisoned Persons, a specific instance against Syngenta to the Swiss NCP on behalf of poison-affected agricultural families in Yavatmal in central India.
According to the complainants, in 2017 approximately 800 agricultural workers in Yavatmal were severely poisoned during a 12-week period when spraying pesticides onto cotton fields. Over 20 of them died. An investigation carried out by Public Eye showed that Polo, an insecticide produced by Syngenta, bears part of the responsibility for the poisonings. Polo contains the active agent “Diafenthiuron,” which has been banned in Switzerland and the EU for years. The NCP complaint examines the cases of 51 farmers who reported using Polo from September to October 2017 (sometimes exclusively of other pesticides). All 51 victims suffered from acute symptoms of poisoning including eye problems, nausea, neurological and muscular complaints, breathing problems, swellings, and skin reactions. According to the complainants, 43 of the 51 people were hospitalised, 44 reported temporary blindness, and 16 were unconscious for between several hours to several days. Most of the victims were unable to work for long periods, a few for up to a year, and 28 report ongoing health problems, including neurological and muscular problems.
The complaint emphasizes that, for many families, the poisoning also had economic and social effects in addition to health effects. The poisoning caused families’ already low household income to fall dramatically. Further, the burden on female family members increased: in addition to looking after the children, women had to care for their sick husbands and work as day labourers in the fields, receiving significantly lower wages than men do. The families’ social lives have also been impacted, as many victims of the poisoning are no longer able to walk longer distances and, due to recurring skin and eye irritations, can no longer withstand the sun.
The demands of the complainants include that Syngenta refrain from selling toxic pesticides such as Polo to small-scale farmers in India and provide financial compensation for the cost of medical treatment and loss of income incurred by the 51 victims filing the specific instance.
Separately from the OECD complaint, three families have filed an action for compensation based on product liability law in Basel. These three cases are not part of the OECD complaint.
Relevant OECD Guidelines
- Chapter II
- Chapter II Paragraph A10
- Chapter II Paragraph A11
- Chapter II Paragraph A6
- Chapter IV
- Chapter IV Paragraph 2
- Chapter IV Paragraph 5
- Chapter IV Paragraph 6
- Chapter VIII
- Chapter VIII Paragraph 1
- Chapter VIII Paragraph 2
- Chapter VIII Paragraph 3
- Chapter VIII Paragraph 7
On 15 December 2020, NCP Switzerland issued an initial assessment accepting the complaint and offering its good offices.
On 16 June 2022, NCP Switzerland published its final statement. According to the NCP, “extensive mediation has led partly to a better mutual understanding between the Parties. However, there were differing views on the impact of ongoing judicial proceedings at the Civil Court of Basel on the mediation process.” Specifically, Syngenta asserted that it could not comment on issues dealt with in court proceedings, particularly the question of whether Polo caused the poisonings alleged in the complaint. The complainants asserted that discussing remedies could not negatively impact the judicial proceedings because the NCP proceedings did not relate to the same people as the judicial proceedings and both operate according to different legal standards. NCP Switzerland concluded that discussions on this issue would create serious prejudice for Syngenta with regard to the judicial proceeding and therefore could not be discussed until after the conclusion of the court case. Because this might take several years, the NCP decided to conclude the proceedings on the question of whether Polo caused the poisonings of the 51 farmers.
In its final statement, NCP Switzerland made several recommendations:
- For the parties to pursue their dialogue at the global and local level.
- That Syngenta review its customer complaint process in India based on the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct for company-level grievance mechanisms.
- Upon Syngenta’s request, that the complainants comment on the training programs for Indian farmers within the framework of its professionalisation of spraying services.
ECCHR issued a press release following the final statement’s publication. Dewanand Pawar on behalf of Maharashtra Association of Pesticides Poisoned Persons stated: “The farmers and their families are severely disappointed and distressed in the absence of a tangible outcome after making painstaking efforts over four years to reach this international forum”. The press release also refers to a statement made by Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights (received via direct email to the complainants): “The group of 51 farmers and their families should not be deprived of their right to access remedy through a non-judicial process simply because another group of victims chose to file a civil lawsuit” and “This is setting a bad precedent that underscores the weaknesses of national contact points for the OECD Guidelines”.
On 15 June 2023, the Swiss NCP published its follow-up statement. It states that Syngenta has reviewed and in particular improved the accessibility and transparency of its complaint mechanism in India. At the same time, it noted that the complainants regretted that the mediation did neither lead to any compensation for the farmers nor to an adaptation of Syngenta’s manufacturing and distribution process.
- Other companies involved
- Affected people
- Date rejected / concluded
- 16 June 2022