Why The Bhopal Disaster Site, 28 Years Later, Is Still A Toxic Killer

The Bhopal plant, abandoned but still deadly
The Bhopal plant, abandoned but still deadly
Julien Bouissou

NEW DELHI - Who will be able to decontaminate Bhopal? During the night of December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant exploded in the north Indian city of Bhopal, releasing toxic gases that killed between 15,000 and 30,000 people.

Nearly 28 years after one of the worst industrial catastrophes in history, toxic chemicals abandoned on the site are still contaminating the groundwater.

On September 17, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) announced that it would not be removing 347 metric tons of waste to incinerate them in Germany, in spite of having started negotiations at the beginning of the year with the Indian government.

The reason given for the decision was that the Indian government's refusal to be responsible in case of any accident in the transport and handling of these toxic substances.

Another reason was the opposition of German activists and environmentalists to the transport and incineration of the chemical waste in their country. "We do not want highly toxic substances to travel across half the planet," Manfred Santen of Greenpeace told Deutsche Welle.

The decontamination of the Bhopal site is a gigantic project. Between 4,000 and 12,000 metric tons of toxic products are thought to be present in the soil. Removal of the 347 metric tons of waste stocked in the former factory would only be the first step. However, no incinerating center in India is capable of disposing of the waste safely. If Europe refuses to do it, the waste will have to be buried in India.

Waste and toxic chemicals, used to make pesticides, had infiltrated the soil long before the explosion. In 1982, two years before the disaster, Union Carbide's internal notes reveal that there were leaks in 23 hectares (56.8 acres) of basins used for storing chemical waste. "The evaporation basins continue to leak, which is very alarming," said a telex sent to the American headquarters of Union Carbide in 1982, and seen by Le Monde. The same year, farmers had complained of the sudden death of several cows that had been grazing near the factory.

Ongoing health problems

Seven years later, Union Carbide took samples on the factory grounds and in the waste treatment reservoirs. The analysis revealed high concentrations of naphthol and naphthalene. During the tests, fish exposed to the samples of toxic substances, even diluted, died instantly or within two days.

How many inhabitants of Bhopal were and still are contaminated by toxic waste? How many of them have died because of it? It is hard to know the truth. No independent study has evaluated the extent of groundwater contamination, nor the effects of these products on human health. More worrisome is that these effects are added to those of the gases emitted during the explosion of the factory, and that these effects are being transmitted over generations.

The Center for Rehabilitation Studies for the state of Madhya Pradesh, whose capital is Bhopal, stated in 2005 that, "the contamination of soil and groundwater clearly increased the morbidity rate among the population living around the factory." The results of an expert study ordered by the Indian Supreme Court should be known this autumn.

Around the contaminated site, children continue to be born malformed. Many local people suffer from anemia, skin ailments and cancer. Nothing has ever been done to clean up the site. In 1994, Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary to a purchaser who resold the property four years later to the State of Madhya Pradesh. As the transactions multiplied, the question of soil contamination was ignored. In 2009, the government of Madhya Pradesh maintained that the ground was not contaminated. The regional minister in charge of the victims of Bhopal even announced a plan to open the site to tourists.

It took a Supreme Court order in 2005 for local authorities to supply drinking water to inhabitants so that they would stop using wells. But the tanks that have been installed are not all connected to the homes. This August, 47% of the at-risk population did not have access to them, according to a study carried out by the associations for the defense of the victims of Bhopal.

Dow Chemical, which did not answer our requests for an interview, considers that it has no responsibility for Bhopal. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, after Union Carbide already detached itself from its Indian subsidiary. "However, it is the principle of polluter-payer that should apply," says Karuna Nundy, a lawyer for the associations of victims of Bhopal.

"It's important to distinguish the two tragedies," she says. "It’s as if burglars were arrested for having robbed a bank, but later the police also discover a corpse in the trunk of their car. Dow Chemical is responsible for both the factory explosion, which killed thousands of people, and for the groundwater pollution that continues to hurt new victims. "

Dow Chemical spends millions of dollars to show off its image as a company of "integrity," "respectful of the individual" and "protecting the planet." It spent 82 million euros to sponsor the London Olympic Games. Without such support "there would be no goosebumps, no hearts beating fast... nor union of the whole planet," the Olympic Organizing Committee said in its thanks.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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