Three farmers from Yavatmal district of Maharashtra filed a civilian suit in a civil court in Basel, Switzerland, on Thursday, seeking monetary compensation against global agrochemical giant Syngenta.

Among the applicants are two women who, they claim, lost their husbands to pesticide poisoning — while spraying Syngenta’s pesticide Polo on cotton fields in 2017.

In that year, about 700 cases of pesticide poisoning were reported in the district.

Syngenta’s global headquarters is in Basel.

Three separate claims

Swiss lawyer Silvio Riesen, who has filed the case in the Basel court, told BusinessLine that the claims in the civilian court are that the Syngenta pesticide is deficient according to Swiss product liability laws and the company did not inform the farmers sufficiently about the risks, and that is why they got poisoned.

There are three separate claims in the court against Syngenta. The case is to get justice to the farmers through monetary compensation and to stop the export of the hazardous pesticide.

Riesen works for Swiss law firm Schadenanwaelte, which undertakes cross-border cases.

Riesen clarified that although three separate claims had been filed, there could be just one trial. The legal step, in this case, is that, first, a process of conciliation between the parties is attempted; if that process fails, the next step of hearing commences. It is a complex process in which both parties have to make their submissions twice. In international cases, the hearing takes place after a long time, he said.

NGOs back applicants

The applicants are being supported by NGOs such as Pesticide Action Network India (PAN) and Maharashtra Association of Pesticide Poisoned Persons (MAPPP), a community platform formed in 2018 to engage with and organise the farming community, particularly pesticide-poisoned persons who are unorganised and scattered in Yavatmal.

The case is also supported by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), Public Eye, and PAN Asia Pacific.

Syngenta India launches helpline to address farmers’ concerns

Ban Polo in India

Farmer leader and the convenor of MAPPP, Devanand Pawar, who is also a co-applicant in the case, told BusinessLine that the pesticides from Syngenta had destroyed many lives in Maharashtra. The three most marginalised victims have approached the court. Their names are being withheld so that they do not come under any kind of pressure. MAPPP wants Polo pesticide to be banned in India as soon as possible.

Pawar is the General Secretary of the Maharashtra Pradesh Kisan Congress, the farmers’ arm of the Congress party.

The government’s draft order to ban 27 deadly pesticides is welcome and long overdue

ECCHR’s Senior Legal Advisor Christian Schliemann-Radbruch told BusinessLine that the individual claim of one of the widows runs to about ₹24 lakh; a similar amount is claimed by the other widow. The third farmer, himself a victim, has a slightly lower claim.

PAN India Adviser Narasimha Reddy told BusinessLine that Polo pesticide, which was used by the farmers in Yavatmal, is banned in Switzerland. PAN India wants Polo pesticide to be banned in India and the applicants to be compensated.

Impact on farmers documented

To support victims’ families, MAPPP, PAN India, PAN AP, ECCHR and Public Eye had, in a media statement, said that they have also filed a specific instance with the National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises.

Together, they are demanding that Syngenta refrain from selling hazardous pesticides to small farmers in India that require personal protective equipment (PPE) and for which – as in the case of Polo – no antidote is available in the event of poisoning. Besides, the company should pay compensation to the victims’ families for treatment costs and loss of income, the statement said.

The statement added: “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. Based on these facts and further research, the MAPPP, together with PAN India and PAN Asia Pacific, ECCHR and Public Eye, documented the fate of 51 farmer families.

Syngenta declined to comment on the issue. “As a matter of principle we do not comment on ongoing litigation,” the company’s spokesperson stated in an email to BusinessLine.