Mumbai: Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is in the doghouse.
Over a dog, two sparrows and three cockatoos.
The government’s Animal Welfare Board of India has issued a legal notice to J&J, well known for its baby products and Band-Aid, alleging not only violation of Indian laws governing use of animals in advertisements but, more seriously, for allegedly using a forged permit to shoot such commercials.
The board, which is constituted under the ministry of environment and forests, says the no-objection certificate used by J&J in featuring the animals for a television commercial for Savlon soap “is a forged and fabricated one.”
The legal notice, signed by the board’s Chennai-based legal advisor, S.R. Sundaram, and dated 26 June, says that the certificate, based on which the TV commercial was made, “is not true, genuine made or authoured” by the Welfare Board.
The Welfare Board is seeking a fine of Rs1 crore from J&J, which confirmed it received the notice on Wednesday. The same notice was issued to Classics Films, the firm that made the Savlon commercial for J&J.
Under the Performing Animals Registration Rules 2001, it is mandatory for all companies to pay Rs500 and secure a no-objection certificate from the Welfare Board prior to using live animals in an advertisement.
A spokesperson for J&J would only say that the company is “looking into the matter.”
Classics Films, however, insisted all requisite clearances were obtained despite the commercial being filmed outside India. “The commercial was shot in Malaysia,” notes Prashant Sampat, executive producer for Classics Films. “The permission was taken only to be on a safer side.”
But he said that the animals themselves came from Shankar Narayanan who, Sampat said, provided animals for both the advertising and the film industries.
“He obtained the permission for us,” maintained Sampat. “So the alleged forgery—if any—is committed by him.”
Meanwhile, Classic Films is now “seeking legal advice on the matter,” Sampat added.
Narayanan couldn’t immediately be located on late Thursday night for comment or to verify what Classic Films said about the no-objection certificate.
Amid the dogfight and the finger-pointing, “the onus is on Classic Films as well as Johnson & Johnson” to take the no-objection certificate from us, says Major General R.M. Kharb, chairman of the Animal Welfare Board.
One of the give-aways that led the Welfare Board to suspect “serious foul-play” was because the copy of the certificate was dated 7 January, which falls on a Sunday, when the board’s offices are normally closed.
“My client’s office has caused a thorough search, scrutiny of the board records, connected files, registers etc., and it was found that they have not received from you the prescribed application seeking ‘no-objection certificate’, and neither they have received from you the prescribed fee of Rs500,” wrote Sundaram in the legal notice.
Meanwhile, R. Balasubramanian, the former secretary of the Animal Welfare Board whose signature shows up on the allegedly forged certificate, has written to Gen. Kharb saying that “the signature appears to be forged... I request you to investigate the matter thoroughly and bring the culprits to book.” Balasubramanian is now assistant commissioner of department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries.
“Animals are vulnerable and defenceless beings,” says N.G. Jayasimha, campaigns manager for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist animal welfare group. “It is imperative that no one flouts laws that are made to protect them. Already, animals suffer so much in the ad and film industries. The least that the industry should do is ensure that the Performing Animals Registration Rules are followed in the true spirit of the law.”
Jayasimha said that even if a film or ad is shot overseas, the Welfare Board’s permission is required for airing it within India. There have been instances where firms have used animals for shooting without prior permission, says Jayasimha.
“But we have never come across of an instance where the certificates were forged,” Jayasimha adds.