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

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

The project started with the naïve question: Why are so many roads being built in South Asia?

As an anthropologist, the PI started with the assumption that roads are forms of politics and diplomacy, roads generate the possibilities of both freedom and control. Roads might be local in their aim, to connect places, or geopolitical in their reach, perhaps ‘gifts’ from other countries, or facilitated by highly conditional loans from international banks.

ROADS explored the ideas that drive road-building – the development imperative, a vision of the good life, a form of political communication or exploitation – rather than the materiality and techniques of road construction. In the research there are no diggers, only ideas, claims and, most importantly, the outline and analysis of underlying assumptions.

The research found that road building has been naturalized by the twentieth century to the point of having become an unremarkable and common-sense activity. Simply, roadmen were not used to being questioned about what they were doing: ‘lunatic anthropologists!’, some said. If, however, you imagine global road-building mania to be an essay, the student would fail because there is no evidence to back up the argument. Instead, we have ‘path dependency’ given legitimacy by the momentum of history, conventional state-practice and target-driven institutions.

This is not an innocent or ‘academic’ observation because the path on which we are dependent was laid before the discovery of human-induced climate change. Road building in many parts of the world is gaining momentum, rather than reducing, encouraged by a twentieth century development imperative based on a narrow vision of economic growth.

The research explored the political economy and critical geography of these claims by focusing on road builders from many countries who build roads in South Asia. How do they think about their work and the future of the planet?

Historical archives from the twentieth century trace how road building gained moral and institutional momentum as the practice became central to nationalist and developmental projects, particularly in India and Pakistan. The changing use of roads in the metaphorical and governmental speech of leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and Advani is to trace the arrival and conquest of the motor-road in popular, political and national consciousness. To study the changing ways roads are positioned and described in the policies of government is to reveal the ideological underpinnings of how a state believes or wants the world to work.

Roads become the magnificent obsessions of later politicians, notably, Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan and Nitin Gadkari in India. These flamboyant and controversial politician-roadmen are shown to have redefined ‘road talk’ as forms of utopian and hyperbolic promise built on the idea of a never-ending future.

A second major strand of ethnographic material takes us onto the road, to fume-filled toll booths in the heart of India, overworked government offices in Pakistan, and into the foundations of pharaonic bridges in the Indian Ocean, to ‘read’ roads themselves as forms of governance and knowledge.

Research undertaken on and along roads is used to argue with the roadmen about what roads do and why, exploring the politics of evidence, and trails of money. The picture that emerges challenges established geo-political narratives of South Asia, finding both basic humanitarian concern and freewheeling off-shore and American capital along the highways and byways of the subcontinent.