India: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home

India: 5 Stories Making Headlines At Home

This week, we shine the spotlight on India:


Google's surprise announcement that it was restructuring its businesses under a new parent company called Alphabet was a significant boost to India's national pride, with much of the media coverage focused on Google's new CEO, Indian-born Sundar Pichai. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate the 43-year-old for his rapid climb to the top of one of the most successful and powerful companies on the planet.

Like Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella, Pichai has been hailed as a role model for young Indians, and Indian website Firspost now characterizes Indians as "the biggest power players in Silicon Valley." As many as 15% of startups there are founded by Indians.

Among the innumerable articles dedicated to Pichai, The Hindustan Times published a series of interviews with his former teachers and schoolmates. "He was one of those typical good students who would follow every word of the teacher," his former thesis supervisor said. A former student, meanwhile, said he remembered Pichai as "kind of a bookworm."


The Indian government is suing Nestlé"s Indian unit and is seeking the equivalent of $100 million in damages over allegations that the company's highly popular Maggi noodles are unsafe for consumption, The Times of India reported. The world's biggest food company was banned in June from selling its instant noodles after the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India found that the product contained excessive levels of lead that were endangering consumer health, which Nestlé denied. The ban is said to have cost the Swiss company as much as $50 million, but India's consumer affairs department now says Nestlé"s advertisements were misleading and deceptive and earned "unjust profits" through "unfair trade practices."


If having noodles removed from supermarket shelves went down relatively well with consumers, the same can't be said of the government's order to Internet service providers to block access to 857 pornographic websites. Having provoked a storm of criticism on social media at home as well as mockery abroad, the decision was overturned just days later, with Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi admitting that India "cannot become a totalitarian state" or "enter everyone’s house or bedrooms," The Indian Express reported.

The ban was initially motivated by the government's determination to tackle child pornography and to prevent children from accessing adult material online. It came weeks after behavioral experts said that rising porn addiction among Indian youth could lead to risky sexual behavior on a large scale, especially in a country that already faces a rape problem.


Forecasters had warned months ago that this year's monsoon season (June to September) would bring below-normal levels of rain, and they were right. After suffering a devastating heat wave that killed more than 2,300 people in May, rain levels at the end of July were 9% below normal, and 20% below normal for the first 10 days of August. Worse still, rain distribution has been largely unequal, with some regions receiving as little as half of usual levels, sparking fears of droughts in the months to come. Other regions have been plagued by floods and landslides that killed dozens across India, as well as in Pakistan and Myanmar.

Despite boasting one of the world's highest growth rates and being Asia's third-largest economy, half of India's population still work in the agriculture sector, which depends heavily on the monsoon season, The Hindustan Times explained.


Nestlé isn't the only multinational corporation to find itself in trouble in India. Hindustan Unilever Ltd., the local subsidiary of Unilever, has been the target of a Nicki Minaj-inspired protest song that has gone viral on YouTube. The reason? The company's failure to clean up mercury contamination from its former thermometer factory â€" which Unilever shut down in 2001 â€" in the otherwise idyllic town of Kodaikanal, in southern India.

Panoramic view of Kodaikanal â€" Photo: Challiyan

The video, which has been viewed nearly three million times, is part of a campaign to make the issue public and thus force Unilever to "clean up their mess" and compensate former workers suffering from mercury poisoning. More than 80,000 people have signed a petition calling on the company to take responsibility. Less than two weeks after the video's release and in the face of what The Economic Times described as "social media activism," Unilever announced it had submitted a "soil remediation" project and would start working on a solution. But as the song warns, "Kodaikanal won't back down until you make amends."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!