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In Session: Quotidian Structures of Colonial and Postcolonial Governance
1: “Unfit for human consumption”: Contestations Over Legal and Scientific Definitions of Food Adulteration in 1950s Calcutta
Friday, March 26, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Gourav Krishna Nandi
Yale University, United States
This paper examines public health governance in early postcolonial Calcutta. With the aim to make the city safe from epidemics, Calcutta's municipal officers frequently attempted to restrict both the sale of uncovered and "unwholesome" food sold by poor hawkers and the circulation of adulterated food items. While municipal food inspectors often destroyed uncovered food items sold in Calcutta’s marketplaces, encounters between traders and the municipal government over adulterated food did not always go smoothly or as planned. During the 1950s, courts emerged as a key site where both city officials and traders used scientific authority to contest the definitions of "adulterated food". In this paper, I analyze case-laws from the Calcutta High Court during this period to ask: How could one prove whether a food item was adulterated? Did the presence of impure ingredients in cooked food imply adulteration food? Could contemporary standardized chemical processes adequately prove adulteration in food items? While the Calcutta’s municipal government aimed to remove the scourge of adulterated food, traders showed that these interventions by local officials were sometimes based on uncertain definitions of purity and anxieties of hygiene and toxicity.