'SLAPP'ed but will not submit

In the first week of April this year, a group of men came and stood outside the Centre for Science and Environment (cse), New Delhi. They carried placards with offensive slogans directed at me. We understood the ‘protesters’ were ostensibly from an ngo we believed was a front for the pesticide industry. We also understood the picket to be the latest in a dangerous pesticide industry mindgame.

Let me explain. For the past few years, the pesticide industry, represented by its rich and powerful owners, has held press conferences across the country slamming cse’s research on pesticide residues in food, in the blood of farmers in Punjab and in the soil, water and food of diseased and deformed villagers of Padre in Kerala. During this period, we have received dozens of legal notices from this industry, threatening dire consequences. Every time we have replied to these notices, stating the facts, there has never been a follow-up. Instead, another notice for some other frivolous reason gets sent threatening dire consequences. Initially, the industry targeted our research. The focus then moved to us—to cse—before settling on me. A year ago, they hit a real low when they began circulating obscene cartoons of me that Rajju Shroff, owner of a leading pesticide company, had drawn.

In all this time, even as we refused to give in to the threats, we also respected their right to protest. This time, too, we decided to leave the picket alone. Then, a few days into the ‘protest’, a journalist with a city daily visited and recognised one of the protesters outside our gate. This was not an employee of the aggrieved pesticide company or a protesting ngo, he said. This man was a representative of a public relations company who had met him, on behalf of biscuit manufacturers, to make the case that government should allow processed food, instead of cooked hot meals, in the multi-crore school meal programme.

We were puzzled. Surely, Indian industry was too proud or forthright to hire protesters? Why would reputed public relations companies engage in dirty tricks and intimidation? We knew this kind of thing happened in the us, where corporations hired lobbyists and white collared goons. But was this now happening in India? We decided to investigate.

When we checked with all known names in the public relations business, nobody had heard of this company—Media Expressions Consortium. Finally, when my colleagues tracked it down to a small office based in a Mumbai suburb, a sinister canister of worms leaked out. The company, we learnt, represented the biggest of the polluters—the plastic industry and pesticide industry—as well as others, like the biscuit manufacturers, to defend their interests. The company boss proudly told my colleague he was out demonstrating in front of our office. But in the same breath he told her he had nothing to do with the protest. We realised why. His was a ‘shadow’ affair. This was the new face of Indian business—the hidden lobbyist who could skillfully make out cases for clients in different ways, from power-point presentations to physical protest, all on hire, for a price.

Clearly this is now the toolkit of industry to deal with dissent—to suppress public opinion and to subvert decision-making via a fine public relations makeover. If you don’t believe me just consider how, in this same period, the pesticide industry through its associations has filed countless cases against activists and scientists, but with an important difference. These cases derive from what is known in the us as slapp —acronym for ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’. These are ‘different’ because the corporation (or its front organisation or lawyer) uses it not to get justice, but to threaten, intimidate and gag. The cases are filed not against institutions that can defend their interests but carefully target individuals and, in particular, professionals who refuse to prostitute their science to suit industry. The companies who file slapp cases rarely win in court, but make the defendants spend a huge amount of time and money running to the courts to fight the case. This harassment discourages others from petitioning government on public issues. Industry’s business is served.

A few years ago, the Pesticide Association of India now called the Crop Care Federation of India sent Y S Mohana Kumar, the lone doctor in Padre, a strong legal notice threatening massive damages. His crime? He had worked tirelessly among villagers afflicted with terrible mental and physical ailments that pesticide residue poisoning had caused, and had raised the issue publicly. Padre is a village devastated by the spraying of endosulfan; every house has a victim crying for justice. The industry continues to deny its shame. Instead, it continues to threaten and abuse. The latest victim is a retired government scientist who undertook the research that indicted pesticides for the ailments in poisoned Padre. Till she worked with the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Occupational Health, industry and its agents did nothing. But the moment she retired, the attacks began. She has already received two legal notices, and more threats, we know, will follow. Industry wants to ensure that others learn from her example—do not ‘dare’ to do science that works for public good.

Even as I write this, I know that the dirty tricks department of the pesticide industry is working over-time to find innovative ways to attack. Last week they decided to up the ante—to target my house so that they can harass my 80-year old mother. But we all know there is too much at stake here to let a few sticks and stones break our bones.

—Sunita Narain