Roads – For Whom And Why?

himalaya highway

Early Imperialism was characterized also by ecological colonialism, that is to say the ecology was shaped by colonial interventions. While the interventions themselves were acts committed in furtherance of the needs of imperialist. The social necessities of capital to constantly valorize surplus value lead imperialist powers to extract valuable minerals and biological matters . This effected change in land use of forestland, some of the forests were converted into arable land through which the imperialist power collected revenues and the resources of forests also proved to be commodities whose value could be realized in the market. To satisfy this very need of capital, in India the British enforced nationalization of forest in 1800s, this was legalized under the form of Indian Forest Act 1865. The act provided a monopoly over the forest resources to British colonizers, who were basically acting on behalf of the imperialist bourgeoisie in England. Forests were categorized according to their commercial needs and were given to the highest bidder in Britain. Thus accordingly capital sought control over forest and through it the water resources too.

But this opening up of the hitherto unconquered landscape of water and mountains was commissioned through construction of roads and railways. The development of infrastructure needed for capital import in the forest space and the subsequent flow of labour and raw material from these spaces is done under the leadership of World Bank, one of the president of the bank said that ‘a great deal of the work of the bank is carrying on the work of the empire, such as irrigation work, ports, railways, dams, roads, mines and even project for small farmers’ . Transportation and communication extension program by World Bank in the oppressed countries are blood vessels for global imperialist economy. For it is these routes that carry capital to the oppressed region and in return brings Labour power and raw material. This spatial expansion of imperialist economic-ecology is a necessary stage in free market capitalism designed by classical ‘Babas’ of political economy in the likes of A.Smith and David Richardo. But before this expansion is achieved, the road for capital has to be laid down. Road therefore is a medium of control and authority over the resources. Since most of the roads are made by the ruling class it is but clear that it is they who would control the motion through it. Transportation is an medium through which the ruling class purge the resources for its usage. Transport networks are so designed that it creates a dependency on the political economic space of ruling class. World banks while meeting a totally alien land has to create object of faith, road being one of them. Roads are often seen as an object per-se. But is in an object to meet the end of a particular class.

The word ‘integration’ often comes up in the rhetoric of the ruling class as an justification of road construction and to mask the ruling class interest behind road construction, is in fact an act of colonization . For every small needs of the village, people will have to move towards cities, the cities being absolute space of imperial capital will exploit their labour power in order to maximize their gain, as this dependency increases, all the productive power of the country side gets sucked by the urban centers of the finance capital and in return people of the countryside finds themselves in the dirt of the urban space, having being displaced by the so called development project they get purged off their resources and are left to starve in urban slums, as a huge army of labour that would ensure for the capitalist that the wages remain low. ‘They are as Marx said reserve pool of labour power’. For being in destitution they would work at any terms. Besides roads are also a means to gain relative surplus value. Without roads and other transportation network the cost for the transportation of raw material to the manufacturers is huge but with the transportation network this cost is drastically reduced, hence it is always in the mind of the colonizer to construct permanent pavement in form of roads on which wheeled vehicle can move, this reduces the friction between the motion of capital and the natural limit to it. But simultaneously increases the friction between the ruling and the oppressed class whose resources are being expropriated by this structural and institutional arrangements. It is equally wrong to say that only the imperialist bourgeoisie and their compradors in the cities stands to gain by the roads and the network of transportation. The world bank has always acted in close collaboration with local landlords of the country-side, the bank in its capitalist imperialist mission stand to gain by the local landlord dominance over the resources and labour power of the people. For it is the local landlord and the other ruling class in the country side which along with the World Bank decides the site for road construction, for the value of land increases with the road being laid down near the land. The big landlord and merchants benefits in terms of relative surplus on the food-grains transported to the market. Peasants having large land holdings are able to produce large quantity of food-grains and hence for them the reduction of transportation cost will produce a relative surplus. In Himachal it is a common observation that small and middle apple growers do not use road for transporting their apples to the ‘Mandis’. While the big landlords and rich peasants take their apple to different ‘Mandis’ through roads. This clearly establishing the fact that roads are the channel for capital export.

MK.McCall writes that, “Van der Tak and de Weille (1969) made a follow up study for a World Bank financed road project in Iran. Their results in summary, show that transport costs for agricultural produce declined by 20 per cent whereas the prices to the growers remained unchanged. In analysing the reasons for this, they found there were many middlemen between the farmer and his market in Tehran, and that these middlemen were “in a strong position both politically and economically” with respect to provision of credit, transport and marketing services. The middlemens’ monopoly allows a difference of 25-50 percent between the farmgate and the Tehran prices, whereas the transport costs accounted for only 5-10 percent of the margin. The rest is absorbed in transporters’ and other profits. The authors conclude that the road has had no development effects, that is no increase in agricultural production has been due to the road: and that an overhaul of the marketing structure might have had far greater development effects than any road improvement” . This quotation from MK McCall contradicts his analysis in the later section of the article where he days that imperial capital destroys the traditional rural economy and builds a capitalist one. But from above quotes it can be said that imperialism does not allow any space for the indigenous growth of capital, It can be seen through this that the world bank as an institution fuels the class relation in a pre-capitalist societies. Road is an instrumentality to reproduce the class relation of society, it does not change it qualitatively.

Politically, roads are the site for state production. Roads bring in schools, police station, health centers and in the social space of Himachal Pradesh it also brings temples. All these institutions are ideological apparatus of the state. These apparatus ensures complete compliance with the colonizing dictates of the colonial powers. The disciplinarian mechanism in its physical form is the state institutions of police and other domestic policing agency, while in its metaphysical form it is temple and school that normalizes a particular form of development model in which resources extraction is presented as a model of self reliance and progress, and in which individual`s status is judged by the capacity of theirs to adept to the social and cultural space of cities. The clash of space occurs between rural and urban sociolect-cultural spaces, urban spaces are the abode of imperial capital, this capital produces a particular type of social and cultural space but this clash is never complete, for the imperialist capital integrates the feudal cultural values which have their materiality in the land relation of rural spaces. Therefore the process of urbanization in a non industrial society, is a process to create Neo-liberal markets for mass consumption by the middle class and a vast pool of labour for the comprador and imperialist bourgeoisie. Rich peasants and big landlords start using Cars manufactured by Maruti, Honda, Ford and others. In Himachal cars have become a common commodity. The drive for money that is inherent character of such a model of developments casts its shadow on the consciousness of people, hence the traditional society that rested on community life is being individualized. Money the great corrupter has created conditions for the commercialization of every social aspects of the society. Hence at material level the ideologies that gets normalize is a mixture of imperialism and pre-capitalist social relations. In tribal societies roads engulf the distinct identity of the people, in oppressed nations roads are the methods for imposition of brahamnism in primitive societies and suppression of dissents against what is ‘normal’ and dominant . Roads are several networks to de-link people at the margins from their culture, economy, social life and daily reproduction of their distinct human identities.

The history of road construction in Himachal is not new. Despite its rugged terrain and geological sensitivity, the ruling class has been constructing an imperial vision of mountains. Roads for the movement of wheeled vehicles started during British imperialism, the first highway to be constructed in highly rugged tough terrain was ‘Hindustan Tibet Road’ Lord Dalhousie ordered the construction of road in June 1850 . It connects Himalaya’s interiors at the border of China with the Grand Trunk Road of India at Ambala cantt city, the British colonial policies in Himalayan region were three-folds, one was the trade connectives with outer Himalayan tribes which would give a pretext to colonize whole of outer Himalayas, secondly the British were heavily invested in great games, they had to ensure that if in any case Russian Tsarist regime reaches the northern boundaries of Indian subcontinent then the regions connectivity with mainland of British empire has to be so designed that soldiers can easily be mobilized at the borders, thirdly the most important thing from which British colonial power had profited from Indian subcontinent was the export of raw materials to the industries in England, from this perspective the Himalayas were of great significance, Himalayas being the abode of forests, deforestation for timber became a highly profitable investment for the British, construction of road further increased the profit rate from timber business . During early years of nineteen century the oak forest of England started disappearing, this created a shortage of timber for the Royal Navy of the British empire. This shortage were to be met by export of timber from India.

This history shows the strong link between Sea power and Forests, imperialism needed wood for its dominance over water and to dominate over woods it needed roads . Such was the history of first road constructed in Himachal, it served as an extractive toll for the purpose of imperial assault on mountains, forests and water of Himachal. But if one sees the rationale which was put forward before the general public for the construction of Hindutsan-Tibet highway then we find a lot of rhetoric regarding the ‘desire for the state to revolutionize the social conditions of people. Lord Dalhousie said that the construction of roads will eliminate servitude of the peasants to the landlords in form ‘Begar’. On the rhetoric of anti feudalism colonialism tends to solidify its hold on people of Indian subcontinent.

This was when in the construction itself Begar labour of Dalits were used, the British used the local ruling class structures to deploy labour and to create a consensus among the locals regarding such projects . Imperialist exploitation and oppression was tied up with the feudal class structure of the society. Such was the general exploitation of Himachal`s resources during the direct colonial rule of the British imperialist masters. In response to the rising class struggles, working class power against the ruling capitalist regime got crystallized as a powerful socialist state of USSR. Due to this Imperialism changed its tactics and introduced Neo-colonial tactics of exploitation and political dominance. To address the administrative needs of such shift, the imperialist powers of the world gathered at Bretton Woods of USA in 1944, all the nations which emerged powerful after world war 2 were present, in this conference imperialist powers designed the Neo-liberal policies for the world and accepted dollar hegemony over the trade and commerce at world level. Financial aid in terms of loans to the oppressed countries was given utmost importance. This lead to the formation of Bretton Woods institutions of which Word Bank and IMF are units, the name given to these institutions was International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) . Its chief purpose was lending of finance for the development, in the age of growing class struggle at global level this was a modest response to the soviet power.

The imperialist effort to colonize the globe is now available in the sugar coated capsule of ‘aid’ and ‘development’. Financial aid was a substitute for the old fashioned colonialism. And in this age of monopoly capital World Bank emerged as the new instrument of national oppression and exploitation. The export of capital and in turn its valorisation was found in the language of World Bank. The bank was in charge to rescue the capital from its crisis. To facilitate this, the politics behind the export of capital lies in control over state institutions of the oppressed countries. This controls is particularly detrimental to the general interest of working class . The bank needs an investment opportunities favourable to export of capital in oppressed countries. For this the labour power as a commodity in the oppressed countries should not just be regulated but their bargaining power has to be curtailed. This done by all sorts of draconian measures to oppress and exploit them.

Neo-colonial tactics of imperialist exploitation in Himachal Pradesh is evident in financial dependency which the state has on the World Bank. This dependency has created an obliging effort for the Indian state to open up all the lands for dominance by finance capital. A highly developed network of road has become all the more important. Himachal Pradesh hence is criss-cross by road networks, almost all the trading centers where there is a possibility of surplus generation are connected with the cities.

This is despite the fact that Geo-physicts like Roger Biham has warned of severe earthquake in Himalayas in the coming decades. He said that the construction activities in a geologically sensitive belts of Himalayas have created pressure on the tectonic plate movements, that may lead into bursting of pressure in near future . The Himalayas already has been affected by climate change the melting of snow and drying up of natural sources of water in the mountains are some indicators of this, but the torrential rainfall of roads in the mountains to colonize the resources and people have made its people vulnerable to geological catastrophe of earthquake, rock slide, landslide and cloud bursting . While linking the people to city centers it will disconnect them from their environment. Roads besides directly adding into the ecological imbalance of the Himalayan ecology also paves the way for tourism in the mountain, these tourists from plains are basically alienated human forms, they bring in culture of mass consumerism, generates waste and get them burnt which adds on to the ecological imbalance of the Himalayan ecosystem. Besides the roads have also brought in stone-quarries industries, they blast whole of the mountains to carry the stones away from the mountains. The stones are then transported to the cement industries. This has created havoc throughout the mountainous ecosystem. Blasting of mountains is also done in dams construction. “Roads,” said the eminent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, “are the seeds of tropical forest destruction .” Roads building produce smoke fumes, this warms up the ecosystem and further contribute to global warming. He further writes that “Tropical deforestation is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions, international carbon-trading funds should be used to better plan and mitigate road projects, to establish new protected areas in advance of road construction, and to halt the most ill-advised road projects altogether”. Roads furthers the exploitation of mountain for petroleum and other such minerals. Further once the roads get constructed, railways and airports comes in to further exploit the mountainous ecosystem.

The building of tunnels for road and rail network are other such examples of destructive role of roads in Himalayan ecosystem. Blasting for tunnel constructions have converted the mountainous landscape nearby into a gas burner, all around the construction zone, sand dust from the blasting floats in the air and water. People gets chronic respiratory problems, their apples qualities gets damaged due to dust over it. There is economical and ecological cost of the tunnel which the people of the mountain has to bear in order to get their resources channelized to city centers. Many of the natural springs and streams gets dried up due to this. River water gets unfit for drinking, the aquatic life of the river gets killed due to the poison in the air. By creating a black cloud of dust and fumes the development projects take water, forest and mountains of the people what they give in return is destitution and hopelessness. For the damage which has been done to the ecology can never be retrieved.

Eight national highways pass through Himachal covering a total area of 1235 km. Country`s longest road tunnel above 10000ft is located on NH21, the national highway that connects Manali to Leh valley . In 2008 World Bank approved six road tunnels in Himachal, of which four were to be built in Shimla, one on NH21 that connects Chandigrah with Manali and the another on Ranital Kangra road. Besides the bank also sanctioned loan for the widening of roads in different districts of Himachal . Transport is in the concurrent list of the Indian constitution and the government of Himachal in collaboration with Central governments uses the financial loans from World Bank to constructs road networks in Himachal. Again in 2010 World Bank approved $1.5 billions for rural roads in Himachal and other such states. The director of World Bank for India said that “A good road network can generate many commercial and social benefits for rural economies” . This is very similar to the language which Dalhousie used to justify construction of Hindustan-Tibet highways and under this pretext the road extracted water, forest and mountain resources from the area. The similar language uttered by two different but nevertheless same power symbolizes the shift from old colonial tactics to Neo-colonial tactics of imperialist exploitation.

The state institutions acting on the express commands of World Bank and other such powers is busy sanctioning and implementing highway construction programs in Himachal. In a document released by NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) in the year 2019, titled ‘PRAGATI KI NAYI GATI’ the government has announced several highway related projects, that includes widening of NH21 in a four lane road. This is done in a region that is highly sensitive ecologically, the area is prone to landslide due to heavy rainfall and can cause a total destruction to the ecological balance of the region. The document mentions that government wants that highways get “built by tunneling through the mighty Himalayas”, the hyper-masculine imperialist colonizer`s language which the document have used clearly indicates the driving force behind this road construction, what the World Bank wants is a space for the valorisation of capital. And the highways while reducing cost on transportation will increase the relative surplus value in the process of capital valorisation. Apart from this projects for widening of Parwanoo Solan section of NH22 to four lane highway have been proposed. Besides there are 28 Ministry of Road and Transport and in principle approval have been given to 71 National Highways in Himachal.

On these projects billions of dollars will be pulled up by World Bank and will flow into the bureaucratic pipelines of Indian administrative and political system. The funds then goes to the monopoly companies in road construction, like Larson and Turbo, IRB and others, it is not surprising to learn that even though the country was under severe lockdown these companies shares were on rise . What is the reason behind their profits? Marx explains that rate of exploitation is the ratio between surplus value that is the profit of the capitalist and the labour power . That means to increase profit of the capitalist more exploitation of labour power is a necessity. Hence the rise in profit of these companies indicates toward the rise in exploitation rate of the working class in general. We know that during lockdown due to the covid-19 pandemic the workers were worst affected, Indian working class is spread in informal sectors, they are hired by the contractors and only a very few of them are directly employed with the company or corporation for which they work. This give the capitalist a great advantage, they don’t have to provide social infrastructures for the reproduction of labour, they do not have to spend on their health, education etc.. In a condition where and when the labour are not formalized the exploitation of workers becomes two fold, one is in their relation with the capitalist and the another in relation which the contractors who brought them from far of places like Jharkhand, Nepal, Orissa and Bihar to work in Infrastructure construction site in Himachal. The contractor pays them before the completion of their work at the construction site, and then they are made to work in construction. The initial payment binds the worker to the contractor, who basically is a muscle man of the company thereby the workers get bound to the work. Caught in such a web many of the workers in construction sector were made to work even during lockdown. This explains the rise in profit of construction companies even during the lockdown.

The working conditions of the migrant labor in construction of roads and highways are pathetic . They are made to work from 5am to 10pm and are paid only 180rs daily. Most of the contractors do not even pay the wages on time, in that condition when they do not ahve enough money the worker have to loan certain amount from the contractor. This again binds them to the contractor and work. Besides they don’t have proper living arrangements and are made to sleep under discarded militarily tents and rock sheds, that too is packed by fellow workers. In one tent there are about 40 people. They brave the sever cold winds of the Himalayas, for many of them such sever cold is unusual. Sadhav Ekka from Bihar who is employed in Highway construction at Rekong Peo said, “we work like slaves, bearing with the heat and freezing cold, but we have no facilities, there is no drinking water at the work site, no shed for resting and not even first-aid kit . Exposed to dust and smoke most of the migrants develop respiratory problems, Tuberculosis and malaria. They are not provided any health service. The constant supply of labour to the construction site is ensured by the web of contractors which have their link at the village level of Bihar, Nepal and Jharkhand. An oppressed country like India can provide capital with a huge pool of reserve labour power and the negotiating power of the labour for wages are low, added to it the feudal bounding at the village level that pulls the worker to these construction site also weaken the negotiating power of the workers. Behind this exploitative conditions of the workers lies the great imperialist giant World Bank but it is masked under the contractor and company that employs these workers. The Neo-colonial tactics of exploitation by Imperialism has produced its own fetishism. Loot is mystified as development. This resonate with the title of the document mentioned earlier ‘PRAGATI KI NAYI GATI’, the only truth in the rhetoric is ‘GATI’, Capital is also defined as GATI, capital is value in motion, roads decrease the friction in this GATI but it can not decrease this friction without increasing the exploitation of the working class. This is the human cost of highway construction, labour power exploitation is the key to road that leads to resource extraction.

Then there are people who stands to loose their jal, jungle and zameen to these so called development projects. The exact number of people displaced due to development project is never revealed by the government but it is estimated that about 50 million people have been displaced by development projects . The displaced population then adds on to the pool of surplus labour power, which in itself is source of profit for the capital. Recently in the month of February, 2021 hundreds of people whose land has been acquired for the widening of the Pathankot-Mandi four lane road protested against this take over. These are the people who earlier had been displaced by the Pong power project and now they faces the threat of being displaced by the road widening project. 3,781 people are to be affected by this . the government on paper has made policies for the rehabilitation and compensation for the land so acquired, that itself never gets implemented, such polices are covered by the bureaucratic fog, making them invisible from the masses. The maze of bureaucracy is such that the amount spent on greasing the palm of bureaucrats almost equals to the compensation assigned by the government. And sometimes affected people do not get their amount even decades after acquisition. Breg Thakur, president of Four-Lane Sangarsh Samiti was reported saying that inadequate and delayed compensation has made people reluctant to give up their land. The landowners are in a better position to bargains with the state but the landless workers and migrant workers who used to work in the farms of the land-owners are not accounted for neither do they have their organization to put forward their demands.

Psychologically, roads have created mental clave. The fear of being confined to a space, claustrophobia is haunting the people. Though formally the idea of road appears to be antithetical to the ides of space confinement, yet the social, political and economic space which the road has created have alienated the people from their local environment space. This alienation has produced psychological results of different kinds on different classes of people in society. While for the ruling class, roads can be a source of motion but for the oppressed and exploited class roads are the source of claustrophobia. Roads are dramatic instruments for the capital, it has changed the whole of political, economic and social space of society. Apart from this, they have produced an individual mental space, where people feel robbed of their space. Unable to claim their original space, they are haunted by claustrophobia. Displaced people are trapped in the political space of the state, they move on from one office to another, they find themselves on protest sites and sometimes at the minister’s place but they are never able to move beyond the dimensional limits of the space which has now caged them, they live in anxiety, in a fear that they would always have to remain within this oppressive confined space.

The ideological apparatus of the state have strongly associated the vision of motion, freedom and development with roads. This fetishism has created a real ideological impulse in the minds of people. But when this fetishism gets blown away by the materiality of the world around them, they find themselves being haunted by claustrophobia. The mental imagination like a monster demands from these roads an escape route from the oppressive and exploitative social conditions. This dis-robs the masks which had covered it. The people have finally discovered that roads are not to improve the social conditions but as a device to subordinate their labour-power to capital. Similarly, the women of Himachal has this fear, the roads lure them to the world of freedom. But what they get in return is eve-teasing in buses, a new space for being oppressed by patriarchy and patriarchal powers. New norms of patriarchal oppression are imported through roads in the society. The mass consumerist culture of urban life gets absorbed in rural life too, people started objectification of women bodies. While the beauty products imported from city centres to the villages through the roads set new normal of beauty. Thus limiting a woman identical to her body. This is another kind of claustrophobia. Migrant labour is strangulated in a political-economic space but with no social institutional set-up that would psychological condole them to find some way to escape from the space, they are most vulnerable to the anxiety of being confined to a space. They have sacrificed their mental capacity to the cause of imperialism.

Uttam Singh is a researcher and activist.

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