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'Slapped' into submission

December 09, 2003 11:02 IST

A few weeks ago, the doctor working with the victims of pesticide poisoning in Kerala's 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.

Interestingly, the committee, which cleared the pesticide, dismissed the findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research 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 committee's 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, 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 governmental authorities."

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 Web site.

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 short.

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.

Similarly, when 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."

Global industry 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 their enemies.

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 toxic fallouts.

It is in industry's 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.

Industry-sponsored government committees, fudged and manipulated environmental impact assessments and emasculated laboratories may be easy to fix.

But they won't work for long. Industry leaders must recognise that their actions are only helping to discredit the very institutions that they need to build.

Unfortunately industry 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.

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Sunita Narain