By Sunita Narain
10 December, 2003
few weeks ago, the doctor working with the victims of pesticide poisoning
in Keralas plantation districts was served a legal notice from
pesticide company giants. His
crime: writing a letter to the fortnightly magazine, Down To Earth,
on the recent moves of a government committee to exonerate the use of
endosulfan, a pesticide that has been indicted for causing reproductive,
congenital and neurological disorders in these areas.
committee, which cleared the pesticide, dismissed the findings of the
Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) institute on the health impacts,
saying it lacked scientific credibility.
The same results,
published last week in Environmental Health Perspectives an established
peer-reviewed scientific publication in the US conclude that
the toxicity of the pesticide has led to changes in sexual maturity
and sex hormone synthesis of children exposed to endosulfan, which the
scientists found in the blood of these young victims.
But for the government
committee there was no evidence to prove toxicity because
of the spraying of the pesticide in the cashew plantations in their
vicinity. The bizarre explanation for the crippling diseases in the
village was the indiscriminate use of the pesticide by people to poison
fish in the stream.
The suffering victims
are to blame, concludes this committee, headed by agricultural scientist,
O P Dubey. But suggest collusion between industry and the committees
findings, and you will be threatened or sued, as the doctor found out.
This is a distinct
and predictable pattern of corporate response to public concerns. The
two cola giants responded to the study on pesticides in their soft drinks
in a similar manner. Hours after we, at the Centre for Science and Environment
(CSE), released our report, the two companies PepsiCo and Coca-Cola
convened a press conference to condemn the report and to question
the credibility of our testing laboratory.
They followed it
up with a public relations blitz. The strategy was simple: denigrate
the report, the institution and the individuals who work there. In the
process, the findings of the report will also be rubbished.
But what is new,
at least for India, is an emerging line of attack to question the right
of a non-governmental organisation to raise public issues. PepsiCo filed
a writ petition in the court, which said that CSE is a a non-governmental
organisation having no legal authority or recognition and therefore,
the report prepared by a private person does not have any sanctity
in law and could not have been binding upon any person, much less the
In its writ, Pepsi
asked for directions from the court to stop CSE from publishing statements
and to withdraw all such materials from circulation and from its website.
This is a tried
and tested strategy in the US. Such lawsuits, where the rights of individuals
or institutions to bring matters of public interest to the notice of
the public are questioned, are common there. Common enough to be given
a name: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP for
A typical SLAPP
case in the US, would involve business operations suing individual citizens
or small non-profit groups because they have communicated their views
publicly or tried to influence government action.
SLAPPs amount to
silencing people into submission. They are not just intimidation
lawsuits. They question the rights of individuals and institutions
to speak out on a public issue, and to communicate their views to government
officials. These cases have been practised to become a fine art.
When TV show host,
Oprah Winfrey discussed the mad-cow disease on her show and said that
the fears of the disease just stopped me cold from eating another
burger, she was sued for defaming cattle. It took her four years
and over $ 1 million to be vindicated in court.
a resident of Rhode Island, wrote a letter complaining about contamination
of local drinking water from a nearby landfill, she spent five years
defending herself against the company, which charged her with defamation
and interference with prospective business contracts.
likes this strategy. It argues that the environmental movement is imposing
avoidable costs on the consumer. Therefore, it believes there is a need
for laws so that corporations can effectively sue, chastise and punish
What is clear is
that Indian industry is learning these terror tactics, and fast. It
worries me. Not because I believe they will succeed in terrorising public
concerns into submission but because it will do little to build the
necessary instruments to effectively manage industrial growth and its
It is in industrys
interest to build a strong and, I repeat, effective system for monitoring
and regulating the environmental impacts of growth. This will require
democratic rights and institutions that can defend or advocate these
rights from courts to civil society institutions. An effective
system will require a strong, much stronger civil society and government
regulatory agencies armed with the best of science and capabilities
to be able to question, critique and advocate.
government committees, fudged and manipulated environmental impact assessments
and emasculated laboratories may be easy to fix. But they wont
work for long. Industry leaders must recognise that their actions are
only helping to discredit the very institutions that they need to build.
associations, the Confederation of Indian Industry or the Federation
of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, believe that their public
relation glitz on environmental issues is working. They need to be told
their greenwash is not washing anymore.