ith Sri Lanka still embroiled in a crisis over the large-scale import of powdered milk valued at a staggering Rs.140 million a day, an important event at Toronto in Canada has brought to centre-stage the behind-the-scenes economic neocolonialism of some transnational powdered milk companies. At last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, Oscar-winning director Danis Tanovic took to the stage to resounding applause following the screening of ‘Tigers’-- not a reference to Velupillai Prabhakaran’s terrorists -- but to the film director’s new 90-minute fact-based drama. The director revealed that the character played by Emraan Hashmi, called Ayan in the film, was actually in the theatre. He was Syed Aamir Raza.
Every 30 seconds a baby dies because it was not breastfed. One such bottle-baby death occurred at Sialkot in Pakistan in March 1997. When the doctor returned from attending to the child and informing the parents, he found Syed Aamir Raza, a transnational milk food company’s sales representative, still waiting in his office. “Why did this child die?” Aamir asked the doctor. “Because of people like you” replied the doctor. So began a crisis of conscience which led to a young man taking on the world’s largest food company. It is a story of institutionalised malpractice and Aamir’s struggle to be heard.
The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) had come to Mr. Raza’s aid when he called on the then powerful milk food giant to stop pushing formula for infants.
Mr. Raza had told Baby Milk Action “the mission we began in Pakistan was on a small-scale, but thanks to the filmmakers it has come into a powerful medium to reach people all around the world. I am grateful to everyone who worked on this film and made it possible.”
Baby Milk Action’s Campaign Coordinator Mike Brady said “co-writers Danis and Andy have done an amazing piece of work. ‘Tigers’ accurately captures the tension of these true events when we were trying to bring Aamir’s evidence of marketing malpractice to public attention in a way that would keep him safe. With a deft touch, they also show the power of corporations and the challenges campaigners and journalists face in exposing them. ‘Tigers’ will grip you whether you are interested in the baby milk issue or not.”
Patti Rundall, Baby Milk Action Policy Director, said “unlike the many documentaries that have exposed this problem over the years, this movie will not only entertain, but will reach many more people at a personal level – showing the pressure on those who work for these transnational corporations and the realities we face in our work when trying to stop human rights abuses.”
A review in the Hollywood Reporter said “writer-director Danis Tanovic explores the power of multinationals, the media and ethics in a finely crafted true-life story”.
Canada’s Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, in a statement said “the film festival was an excellent platform from which to share Mr. Raza’s incredible story of courage and conviction. The account of Mr. Raza’s principled stand in defence of the health of babies and their families is one that deserves to be told. As Minister for Multiculturalism, I would like to commend you for your bravery and to thank you for sharing your story with the world.”
One issue that Aamir’s situation highlighted was the impossibility of seeking refuge from a corporation. When Aamir was unable to return to Pakistan after the events depicted in the film, in fact Canada and others campaigned for his right to stay, a struggle beset with obstacles. In the end it took letter-writing campaigns, petitions and the pro bono assistance of a prominent lawyer to secure his right to remain.
IBFAN continues to campaign against aggressive and misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes by all companies in the developing and industrialised world and for the regulations introduced in Pakistan following the stand taken by Aamir to be fully implemented and enforced.
In Sri Lanka the Health Ministry last month banned the unethical promotions of milk foods including those for children above one year. Last Sunday, the government suspended the sale of some stocks of imported milk powder after some children consumed the product and fell ill. As in many other countries we see in Sri Lanka also the politics of breastfeeding because “the breast is bad for business” according to a best-selling book by a well-known nutritionist. Such a task is beyond the understanding of professional journalists because this sort of quality testing has to be done by highly qualified food technologists or nutritionists. We urge the government to resist “the milk and honey” offers and give priority to the revival of Sri Lanka’s fresh milk industry.