Supreme Court rejects SLAPP suit against eco –activists filed by Pesticides lobb

IN Media Freedom | 04/08/2010
Rejecting a defamation case on 11 activists filed by the Association of Pesticide Manufacturing Companies, the apex court upheld their freedom of speech and said their report was in public interest.
A press statement from the activists who were charged with defamation.

A two Judge bench of the Indian Supreme Court of India, on 20th July, 2010, quashed[1] the  criminal defamation case against 11 activists initiated by the Crop Care Federation (formerly Pesticides Associations of India, a consortium of pesticide manufacturing companies)).

The chemical consortium had filed the case against the activists in the Magistrate's Court of Warangal for publishing a report titled "The Killing Fields of Warangal" in 2002. The report which was a preliminary investigation of the impacts of pesticides use in the cotton belt of Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh (India) was termed defamatory by the largest and most powerful pesticide companies in the country.

In its judgement on 20th July 2010, the Honourable Court observed that "The general tenor of the report indicates that the report meant to focus the harmful effects of exposure to pesticides. It is quite evident from the report that it was not meant to harm, hurt or defame any individual or the manufacturing company". The ruling marks a landmark judgment favouring freedom of speech, and transparency and was fought by very well known Indian environmental lawyer, Mr. Raj Panjwani.

This SLAPP type litigation (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), brought upon by one section of pesticide industries, would have resulted in a continued long and expensive trial for the activists, which had already begun over 5 years ago. The Warangal court had also issued non-bailable arrest warrants against some of the 'accused' in 2007, after Andhra Pradesh High Court had dismissed the appeal to quash the proceedings

The list of  those who were charged included: Dr. Rajan R Patil (Epidemiologist), Ms. Madhumita Dutta (Corporate Accountability Desk – The Other Media), Mr. Ravi Agarwal (Toxics Link), Dr. D. Narasimha Reddy, Mr. P. Damoder (Sarvodaya Youth Organisation), Mr. Rajesh Rangarajan (formerly with Toxics Link),  Ms. Abitha Anand (independent Journalist), Salil Chaturvedi (Splash Communications), Kishore Wankhade (formerly with GGF) and others.

We, as the members of the fact-finding team and others associated with this report, condemn such harassment of environmental and public interest activists. We decry pesticide industry's intimidating tactics to suppress public voice, deny access to information and to put profits before farmers’ health.

We, as the members of the fact-finding team and others associated with this report, humbly declare our commitment to the following:

·         Bring to the attention of the people, farmers and policy makers in the country and the world about increasing hazards of pesticides to farmers and growing scientific evidence about the hazards of these chemicals and the grassroots level use of pesticides.

·         Work for rational/ethical policies of use and distribution of pesticides with an unequivocal emphasis to phase out toxic substances and chemicals used in their manufacture.

·         Declare our commitment to non-chemical method of agricultural production. Help prevent harassment of public-spirited individuals and activists fighting for similar causes.

We, as members of the fact-finding team call upon state and national governments to actively work towards eliminating the threats posed by hazardous agrochemicals for the well-being of farmers and the agricultural environment.

NOTE:

Background

The fact finding team consisted of representatives of diverse organizations that are involved with agricultural issues in rural areas, sustainable development, environmental protection and related public health issues. This included representatives of Toxics Link (New Delhi), Community Health Cell (Bangalore) and Sarvodaya Youth Organization (Warangal).

The findings of this team were published in an indicative report which aimed to be a transparent and account of indicative evidence that has been collected methodically and released for public debate to help in devising a rational and ethical pesticides policy in the country.

The Cropcare Federation of India (formerly Pesticide Association of India), a consortium of manufacturers of agrochemicals has criticized this report and has claimed to be defamatory in nature. The Federation initiated criminal proceedings against the members of the fact-finding team and others associated with the publishing of the said report stating that the report is a malicious and defamatory attempt by the members of the team to defame the pesticide manufacturers and traders among the general public, thereby affecting their credibility and their business.

Subsequently, the organizations and the individuals were engaged in a legal battle at the Warangal Metropolitan Magistrate's Court where the case had been filed. Members of the fact-finding team and others associated with this report denied all the allegations as false, misconstrued and out of context of the report. This indicative report was based on findings of the fact finding team after:

a)      Visits to a number of villages in Warangal district;

b)      Discussions with farmers and their relatives in the district;

c)      Discussions with members of the medical profession and the Indian Medical Association in the area who were involved in the treatment of patients affected by spraying of pesticides;

d)      Discussions with officials in the district including joint director- agriculture, and

e)      Dialogue with other stakeholders in the district.

Driven by the primary objective of protecting the health of farmers, the indicative study was done in a transparent manner, with all the data, the methods used and the sources publicly announced in a spirit of accountability. It called for a larger investigation into the issue. The objective clearly was neither against any industry, nor against any particular association. The concern was about human health and ecology as a whole.

The final recommendations of the fact finding team state that:

1.       Initiation of education and counselling programmes for farmers and farm labourers in Warangal district on organic agriculture (especially cotton) in association with civil society and government institutions.

2.       A detailed investigation into similar experiences elsewhere in the country and a formulation of a comprehensive national pesticide policy that would focus on rational use of pesticides, control and strict monitoring of accessibility to such dangerous chemicals and gradual phase-out of chemical pesticides.

3.       A larger investigation into the issues raised in the report.

[1] Reference: Supreme Court of India, Special Leave Petition, 3700 of 2008, Rajesh Rangarajan vs M/S Crop Care Federation of India and ANR, arising from CPLP 4155/06.

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