Bhopal Gas Tragedy Still Burns 30 Years Later

Considered history's worst industrial accident, having killed thousands in a Dec. 3, 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India, the health effects in Bhopal can still be felt today.

Protests have continued for decades
Protests have continued for decades
Aletta Andre

J.P. NAGAR — In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, a gas leak from the American-owned Union Carbide factory opposite the slums in India's J.P. Nagar killed thousands of people. The effects of the gas cloud traveled beyond the immediate area, and there are at least 100,000 people living with gas-related illnesses today because of the disaster.

A criminal case against the company has been ongoing for years, but Union Carbide insists the matter was settled years ago. As the 30th anniversary of the gas disaster approaches — Dec. 3 in Bhopal will be commemorated with rallies, music, meetings and silent candlelight marches — people are gearing up for protests.

Here in J.P. Nagar, right next to the old, abandoned Union Carbide factory, several dozen people are getting ready to drive to New Delhi. They will join around 1,000 survivors in the capital to march on the parliament.

Firdouz and her mother Semida are among the group. "We are going for the gas tragedy rally, for compensation," Firdouz says. "We expect to get what we deserve. We are going to claim our rights. It's been more than 30 years, but nothing happened. We are sick and worried. They have not done anything about it. They should give us what we deserve. We're fighting for the rights of the whole of Bhopal."

More than 500,000 victims have received on average around $400 each. But many victims such as Firdouz and Semida claim they were denied the money, because as slum dwellers they couldn't prove their address.

The Indian government says higher amounts were given to severely ill and disabled people, and others are treated for free at specially built government hospitals. But the Delhi-bound protesters are demanding an extra $1,600 for each surviving gas victim, more than 500,000 in total.

Just around the corner from the old Union Carbide factory, in the middle of one of the gas-affected slum areas, is a health clinic run by Sambhavna Trust with nearly 30,000 registered patients. Shahnaz Ansari, who works here, explains the common problems and how they treat them.

"Respiratory problems, ocular problems, diabetes," she says, cataloging the issues. "Cardiac problems are more common, hypertension is more common among the gas exposed population."

Neverending health issues

At the on-site pharmacy, they are growing more than 200 species of plants such as turmeric, ginger, hibiscus, aloe vera and tulsi to help treat the victims. "We are trying to treat them with traditional medical care," Ansari says.

Zubeda Bee is one of the gas victims who lost several family members in the disaster. She and many other relatives continue to have health issues, even the ones born after 1984. "It felt like chilies were burning," she says, describing the event 30 years ago. "Eyes started burning, there was smoke. We started coughing and running."

Among those who died were her husband, brother, daughter, nephew and daughter-in-law. "My heart rate increased, and I have chest pain," she says. "We suffer and keep going to the hospital. And there is one who was born like that, my grandson. He cannot hold anything, he runs away and cannot speak."

A 2008 image of the toxic remains. Photo: Luca Frediani

In Bhopal there are still higher numbers of children born with birth deficits varying from blindness and growth issues to mental disorders. No research has been conducted to establish whether this is the result of the 1984 accident or the consumption of ground water, which reportedly continues to be contaminated by toxic waste from the old Union Carbide factory.

Union Carbide, on its designated website, insists that the factory ground is the government's responsibility, and in any case is not as contaminated as victims claim.
The company also claims that the gas disaster was most likely the result of sabotage by an employee.

Back in J.P. Nagar, Navaab Khan calls over a loudspeaker for people to join the Delhi protest. He, like most victims, believes that the disaster was caused by the company's neglect and disregard for safety precautions.

He wants the company and its management to be tried for homicide. Representatives for Union Carbide Corp. never appeared in Indian court, despite being summoned. Its then-CEO in India, Warren Anderson, died last month in the U.S. without having faced trial.

Most importantly, Navaab Khan says he never wants this to happen again. "If Prime Minister Modi wants foreign companies to come, it's good for employment. But they should take responsibility. If some incident happens, it should be clear who is responsible. Not like Union Carbide, which just ran away. If you do business in India, you have to follow the rules."

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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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