'The price of cheap medicine', a documentary by a Dutch media organisation, accuses Aurobindo of contributing to water and air pollution, as well as exploiting labour at its factories.

Hyd-based pharma company accused of pollution exploitation in Dutch documentary Screenshot
news Pollution Monday, March 04, 2019 - 15:02

In April 2018, Dutch media organisation BNNVARA broadcasted the documentary, 'The price of cheap medicine,' for their programme 'Zembla.' The reporter, Jos van Dongen, came to Telangana, where Aurobindo, an Indian pharmaceutical company has its manufacturing units. He investigated the impact of its low-cost production and subsequently, the low-cost drugs that it exports to a number of European countries as well as the US.

Aurobindo is one of the four largest manufacturers of drugs sold in Netherlands, Dongen’s home country. Investigating how the drugs sold by Aurobindo are so cheap, Dongen travelled to India. The film includes testimonies by local villagers and experts, who talk about how Aurobindo, and other pharmaceutical factories in the area have impacted lives. The 36-minute documentary accuses Aurobindo of contributing significantly to water and air pollution, destroying livelihoods and health, also grossly underpaying and exploiting labour at its factories. 

One of the most compelling scenes in the documentary is the one where Dongen and Anil Dayakar, an expert who has been studying pollution caused by pharmaceutical companies in the Musi River, are walking along the water body. Dongen has covered his mouth and nose with his cap, unable to bear the stench and fumes emanating from the river. Coughing and gagging, he says, “The stench is unbelievable. It affects your airways as well as your eyes.”

'The real price of cheap medicine' then makes a case about how people who live in this environment every day cope with its effects, such as illness, skin diseases and unusable groundwater.

It also revealed that while the land for setting up Aurobindo’s units was bought by the Telangana government from Dalit communities with the promise of employment, it has not happened.

Further, the migrant labour employed at the factory were allegedly heavily exploited as well – they were paid only Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 for seven-day manual labour work. Even the employees at the company alleged that they hadn’t been given permanent positions as promised, though they had worked for a decade or more at the company.

The documentary discusses how pollution by companies like Aurobindo leads to superbugs or bacteria that are resistant to multiple drugs. Superbugs are formed when water with antibiotic or pharmaceutical effluents is not treated properly and released into water bodies, causing bacteria and pathogens to develop resistance to the drugs. 

Dongen reached out to both the Telangana Pollution Control Board as well as Aurobindo for responses before the documentary aired. Aurobindo’s generic response to these attempts was, “Aurobindo produces according to strict legal guidelines as applicable in India, the United States and Europe. The production units are certified and controlled by the regulatory authorities in these markets.”

Aurobindo further told The Wire that Zembla had made “untrue allegations” against the company and that it was considering appealing against the Dutch Council’s verdict. 

Aurobindo’s complaint against the film

After the documentary aired, Aurobindo Pharma BV and APL Healthcare Limited filed a complaint with the Dutch Council for Journalism, objecting to the film.

Aurobindo, in its complaint, has stated that while it admits that multi drug-resistant bacteria is a threat to public health, the company has met all the requirements for waste water treatment.

Aurobindo has further claimed that Zembla has incorrectly accused them polluting the water channel in Kazipally. “According to environmentalist Dayakar, who has been extensively discussed, polluted water would come from several upstream industries including Aurobindo. If Zembla had fulfilled its own obligation to investigate, it would have come to the conclusion that topographically it is impossible for waste water from Aurobindo to end up in the water in question,” the complaint read.

Dutch Council’s response

In its response to Aurobindo’s complaint, the Council has decided to stand by Zembla’s documentary.

“Following the complaint from Aurobindo Pharma BV and APL Healthcare Limited (complainants), the Board concludes that Zembla has conducted a thorough investigation and has consulted various sources... There is no distorted picture or careless presentation of the issue, which means that there is non-truthful or tendentious reporting,” the Council noted in its response, as translated to English from Dutch online.

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