Is it possible to imagine a world without roads?

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New building projects, particularly in developing countries, are expected to add 25 million kilometres of new roads to the world by 2050.  At the same time, the EU, alongside many other developed countries have pledged to be carbon neutral in the same time-span.  The two agendas seem entirely incompatible.

An exhibition in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London examines some of the issues surrounding road-building.

A Passage Through Passages

A Passage Through Passages is an exhibition looking at road construction projects in South Asia, focusing on Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  It encompasses historical projects, such as the Nagpur Road Plan, to the current ambitions of the Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India, Nitin Gadkari, to add 45 kilometres of new four-lane highways every day.

Central to the exhibition is a multi-screen video installation by CAMP, an internationally-renowned artists’ collective, based in Mumbai.

A programme of talks, discussions and other events will accompany the exhibition.

The exhibition runs until 21 March 2020 and entry is free.

A Q&A with Dr Niamh Collard

Dr Niamh Collard talks about her research and how it relates to the current exhibition.

How does the exhibition ‘A Passage Through Passages’ tie in with your own research?

“The exhibition developed out of an ERC funded project, led by Professor Edward Simpson, called ‘Roads and the Politics of Thought: Ethnographic Approaches to Infrastructure Development in South Asia’.  Begun in 2015, and now drawing to a close, that project asked the simple question of why, in a time of climate change, so many roads are being built across South Asia.

“Drawing together ethnography, archival work and film from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the exhibition takes us on a journey along new and newly rebuilt roads across the region and through time.  Looking at how pride, money, data, climate and vulnerability are connected to the region’s road system, the exhibition explores how infrastructural promise and developmental possibilities are intimately bound up with failure and the profound ambiguities of road-building achievements.

“This focus on the politics of infrastructure and development draws upon Ed Simpson’s previous work on post-earthquake disaster reconstruction in Gujarat, whilst posing new and pressing questions about the meanings of infrastructure and automobility on a warming planet.”

How did the ‘Roads and the Politics of Thought: Ethnographic Approaches to Infrastructure Development in South Asia’ project come about?

“A collaboration between anthropologists, film-makers and historians across five field sites, ‘Roads and the Politics of Thought’ was the first ethnographic research project to provide a regional perspective on the knowledge practices, inter-relations and motivations underpinning cultures of road building across South Asia.  In asking why road-building in South Asia has become a shorthand for development, ideas of national destiny and a dignified entry into globalised hierarchies of value, the project emerged from the disjuncture between climate policy and concern, and the practices and beliefs of engineers, politicians, financiers and the construction industry who make their living building roads.

“As the project developed along the roads of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, a common thread linking the field sites was the ways in which roads, and their construction, have intimately insinuated themselves into our shared modes of thought, action and being in the world.  Shifting scales – from international policy making to local road-side negotiations – and temporalities – from the accreted knowledge of the archive to the planning uncertainties of infrastructure on a warming planet – we have returned again and again to this thought, that it is through roads, their disconnections and dead ends, as much as their linkages and potentials, that we make the world and ourselves.”

How do roads link with wider projects of nation-building?

“Both the exhibition and the wider project have explored the intimate connection between road-building as a set of practices and ideas, and the construction of the nation-state in South Asia. In India in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the construction of roads was primarily a military exercise, central to the British authority’s colonial control over people and territory.

“After independence, and partition, road-building remained an important means of controlling India’s frontier with Pakistan, with Jawaharlal Nehru skilfully deploying the road, in rhetoric and policy, as he sought to fashion India into a developmental state.

“Today, BJP roads minister, Nitin Gadkari, has not only built a very successful political career by putting roads to work in capturing the national imagination, but he has done so whilst reshaping what roads mean in India’s narrative of itself, through the use of public-private partnerships and ambitious road-building targets that lock in a fossil-fuel dependent future, governed by automobility.”

How is it possible to balance developing countries’ desire for road expansion with developed countries’ ambitions to reduce carbon emissions?

“The insatiable desire for tarmac and infrastructural-fuelled development in South Asia raises important and challenging questions about climate justice and the power of aspiration to shape politics and the built environment.

“In response to a reluctance on the part of countries in the global north, such as the United States, to limit their own consumption of fossil fuel, Indian politicians and environmentalists have, since the early 1990s, been making the case that, historically, India has been a minor contributor to carbon emissions.  They argue that to limit India’s use of fossil fuels now would be to strangle its development, imposing what’s been termed ‘climate colonialism’ on those who are least well-equipped to carry the costs.

“There is a compelling logic to this line of thought, in that it not only speaks to the historic realities of colonialism, but it also intersects with the alluring aspiration to automobility and privilege. Indeed, we know that it is the richest who contribute the most to global carbon emissions, and that whilst India’s share has been growing, its per capita contribution to global carbon remains low relative to that in the most developed countries.

“We also know, however, that the poorest are most vulnerable to the depredations of climate change, and so pitting development against climate change is a strategy doomed to failure.  Whilst awareness of the pressing need for climate justice grows, the challenge remains of translating demands for a greener, more sustainable economy into action, in contexts where there is a fundamental disconnect between transport and development policy and climate concern.”

What is low carbon transport?

“The term ‘low carbon transport’ has been deployed to wildly divergent ends by a range of governmental, financial and policy bodies across South Asia and beyond.

“Walking and cycling are clearly two low carbon and low-cost modes of transport, particularly popular amongst those without access to motor vehicles.  In various policy contexts, mass urban public transport infrastructure, such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), metro and passenger and freight railway lines, as well as vehicles which run on either fully electric or hybrid engines and hydrogen powered fuel cells, are also classed as ‘low carbon transport’.

“The environmental and other consequences of different forms of transport are, however, more complex than the label ‘low carbon’ suggest.  In India, this is clear in the case of ethanol fuel, which is increasingly touted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari, as well as various commercial players, as a cleaner, greener and cheaper alternative to petrol.  Whilst burning ethanol fuel may be less carbon intensive than gasoline, its production is extremely water intensive, entailing significant change in land use and the prospect of deforestation, soil erosion and loss of ecological diversity, all of which have severe climate implications.  Compounded by the fact that ethanol fuels are routinely mixed with petrol, the pitfalls of many supposedly ‘low-carbon’ transport alternatives are evident.

“Rather than looking for a technical fix to climate change that focuses on substituting fossil-fuelled mobility with electric or ethanol powered vehicles, a more challenging and productive approach may be questioning the common-sense notion that ever-increasing mobility is necessarily the motor of economic growth and development.”

In a world striving for carbon neutrality by 2050, will we ever see the end of the road?

“‘A Passage through Passages’ and the Roads project more broadly point to the fundamental ways that roads have not only shaped South Asia’s past and present, but will continue to govern the political, economic, social and environmental future of the region and our planet as a whole.  The ever-quickening pace of road building across South Asia, and the kinds of carbon intensive futures that infrastructure will lock in for decades to come, casts serious doubts on our collective capacity to limit global average temperatures rises to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.  What is more, the imaginative hold of roads, and the understandable aspiration for mobility that they inspire, remain as strong as ever.

“From these perspectives, the end of the road is clearly not in sight.  This should not, however, inspire apathy, but instead be a spur to take what we know about the power of roads to enchant us and inspire the creation of new worlds, and use that knowledge in the struggle to imagine and fashion liveable forms of life on a warming planet.”

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