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Roads and the politics of thought: Ethnographic approaches to infrastructure development in South Asia

Periodic Report Summary 2 - ROADS (Roads and the politics of thought: Ethnographic approaches to infrastructure development in South Asia)

This is an anthropologically-oriented project about road-building. We are examining the cultural ideas about roads held by those who build and promote them. Roadbuilding is intertwined with most aspects of modern human history. However, the rate of road construction is increasing rapidly at the global level. This increase comes during the same period as awareness and concern about global warming has developed. The project explores how these two contradictory developments can co-exist.

Globally, a staggering 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050 - enough to circle the earth 600 times. This figure predicts a 60% increase in the total length of roads from 2010. This research project has taken a broad approach to exploring the reasons that lie behind this tremendous growth with a particular focus on South Asia. Researchers are asking why such development is taking place.

The research is rooted in case studies of road projects in Pakistan, India, Maldives, Reunion and Sri Lanka. These sites have been selected to highlight how nation-building, neo-liberalism, ambition, environmental vulnerability and modernity feature in contemporary roadbuilding.

Across South Asia, we have found that roads are presented as panacea for all manner of social, developmental and political ills. Governments present roads as solutions to poverty and ‘development’. Roads are particularly associated with economic growth. The project is assessing the very varied and questionable evidence on which this connection is made. We have seen that roads can lead to economic growth, but not always and not for everyone.

We have traced the development of roads as an ‘asset class,’ and often construction is driven by investment hunger as much as by local need. The money and financial arrangements are global in nature with non-sovereign investors rent-seeking from local ‘development’ needs through contracts and tolls.

Researchers on the project have successfully begun to untangle many of the conflicting discourses and ideas that allow roads to come into existence. These ideas take us to (a) incredibly difficult moral and philosophical questions to do with the right to development and global and historical equity and (b) the role of evidence, ideology and the future in relation to justifications for why roads are being constructed.

The role of climate change in relation to roadbuilding and transport policy also varies considerably in our study countries, with the idea that current emissions calculations are little more than a form of environmental colonialism remaining widespread despite the vulnerability of the continent to the threats of climate change. The use of projections about the future of roadbuilding have become a measure of development thinking in the region, with the quantity of vehicles on the road forecast to rise dramatically over the next two decades.

Most influentially however, has been the discovery that mobility has become such a self-evident moral and political right that the transport sector does not figure in the climate change and carbon planning of most nations in the region.

This is major blind-spot with practical, policy and philosophical implications. Transport accounts for nearly a quarter of global carbon emissions. Given the multiplier effects of the roads currently under construction, emissions levels will continue to rise dramatically. The project therefore looks to connect climate-thinking with a longer-term perspective of understanding what roads do to societies and why.

The project team are now in the process of working on the first edits of films that represent their work. We hope these will encourage public debate on roads and climate futures.