Modern South Asian Studies Seminar: HT20: Week 6: Highways to the end of the World: Roads, Road-Builders and Architecture of Power in South Asia

Conveners: Imre Bangha, Nayanika Mathur, Matthew McCartney, Polly O’Hanlon, Kate Sullivan de Estrada, and David Washbrook

Speaker: Edward Simpson

This talk suggests that road building in South Asia was naturalised in the twentieth century to the point of common sense. Consequently, road building is now part of a system of climate change denial hidden within a broad international development imperative.

I explore the political economy of these ideas 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 materials from the twentieth century trace how roads became central to nationalist and developmental projects. Today’s flamboyant and controversial roadmen – Nitin Gadkari and Nawaz Sharif – 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 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, as lesson in how to ‘read’ roads as forms of governance and knowledge.

Research on the road 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 the region, finding both basic humanitarian concern and freewheeling international capital in the hedgerows.

Edward Simpson is Professor of Social Anthropology, Head of Department for Anthropology and Director of the South Asia Institute at SOAS University of London. He is author of The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India (Hurst, 2013).  

All are welcome.

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