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Road building has a never-ending future

Op-Ed 2024-02-07, 12:16am


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sharma

For Gandhi, roads were an instrument of oppression.

Road building has caught peoples’ imagination as a harbinger of change, and nothing suits any politician better than to turn it into a reality. No wonder, roadbuilding has been naturalized to the point of common sense in recent times, integrating roadbuilding into a system of governance as part of the development imperative that promotes politics of power. Modern roads are paved versions of age-old pathways which are being promoted and sold to people like any other commodity. Roads have turned out to be an enchanted form of infrastructure that is celebrated to the extent that there is no room for asking dissenting questions. 

Social anthropologist Edward Simpson, a professor at the University of London, has taken on the road to ask discomforting questions on roadbuilding to the roadmen of South Asia. Exploring the political economy of road building, the author questions: Why are so many roads being built in an era of human-induced climate change? What do the roadmen think about their work and the future of the planet? And how did these become central to the region's nationalist and developmental agenda in the first place? Answers aren’t easy to come by, but it is certain that the project of road building is a sure way to win currency and power. 

Roads do transform ways of life and are therefore a self-reproducing system that demands expansion and growth all the time. Consequently, roads have become important sites for inauguration ceremonies and campaign trails. Combining the politics and poetics of road infrastructure, Simpson follows the money to provide a geopolitical narrative that puts road building as a never-ending future. Such is the desire to stay connected that the uncomfortable complicities of roads to impact climate change holds little relevance. Road building from the realm of ideas, discourse, and rhetoric presents an interesting, but controversial story.

Highways to the End of the World digs into the history of road building, how it passed through technological phases and became part of ideological projects. What makes this book absorbing reading is the ethnographic account of the road as a way of telling a story, that cuts a route through landscapes, lives and times. ‘I was interested in learning what people say when they look at road’, quips Simpson, ‘as roads raise fundamental questions about the world and the way we relate to one another’. Gandhi had described roads as instruments of oppression, while for Nehru roads evoked modern amenities and methods. However, over the years roads have become comparative national identity projects in both India and Pakistan, giving birth to political strategies of none other than Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and India’s Nitin Gadkari. It is hard not to agree with the author’s contention that both of them exploited the moral and anticipatory potential of roads for their popularity and electoral success.    

The ethnographic account on roads is illustrative of the broader processes and thought politics that promote a form of market that positions roads as a commodity. Isn’t road part of the economy of elite? Hasn’t levels of corruption in road building been something of a national joke? Despite John Kennedy’s claim that ‘America is rich because American roads are good’, the roadbuilding in the US is not without its share of criticism. Picking up on his longer-term critique of planned obsolesce in his book ‘A Nation of Strangers’, journalist Vance Packard has stated that ‘the mobility enabled by roads and cars is the root of social isolation and loneliness.’ Eventually roads are part of a Faustian bargain, the sacrifice of everything to satisfy desire. 

Simpson’s multi-layered assessment of roads helps realize that road building is more than just the cost of land, working manpower, and inert materials. The narrative on roads asserts that there is nothing better as roads are the only way to address gross inequality and support common responsibility for the future. Travelling across highways in the sub-continent, Simpson found much to the contrary with the highways facilitating drug trafficking, encouraging sex trade, and for connecting land mafia. Not without reason had Gandhi found that the road and its machines enslave people, not only by exploiting their labor but also by binding them to particular forms of consumption. One might wonder if roads contribute to the long-term betterment of the world.

Highways to the End of the World provides a panoramic but contentious view on road building. It is an important anthropological study that examines history, sociology, economy and ecology of road building. It is an inter-disciplinary scrutiny on the process of road building that runs through an unequal world in which scale, friction and speed take the reader along invisible routes ridden with global debt, money laundering, and political conspiracy. It is a must-read book for those who consider road building as a burden on the economy and ecology.   

Highways To the End of The World

by Edward Simpson

Hurst, London

Extent: 351, Price: Rs. 3052.

(Dr. Sudhiorendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India)

First published in the Hindustan Times on Feb 5, 2024.