Roads: Agents of change and development

Arun Srivastava

Infrastructural projects are integral parts of transformative politics. No doubt the roads are essential projects for the growth and development of the society and the country, but at the base the roads are the mechanism to reach out to the aggrieved population. Roads are generally perceived as the initiative to bring disconnected places together.
A look at the development map of countries would point to the fact that the governments have paid attention to construction of roads only when the people of the areas have been up in arms. The integrative ambition and also the importance of the roads always contend with the previous history of connectivity. Roads are supposed to be the catalyst for economic development, but it is a fact that their construction gets priority only when the areas witness a hostile bunch of people who are out to fight the government on streets.
The end of the 30-year civil war in the Sri Lanka saw rapid road construction as a catalyst to economic development and a post-war settlement in the country. This course witnessed a massive pouring in of international loans to fund road building alongside national initiatives and nation building, claims of increasing access and mobility by rehabilitating and expanding roads. This was significantly noticeable in Lanka’s Northern Province, which incidentally has been the worst neglected zone of Sri Lanka.
During the past nine years, after cessation of the war in the Northern Province, all main roads have been reconstructed and carpeted as part of a development project for the North "Uthuru Wasanthaya" with the aims of inclusive economic development, nation building and reconciliation. The premise is that increased connectivity and mobility lead to improved access to markets, and facilities such as hospitals and schools, which eventually help deliver ‘development’. There is hardly any study on the impact and consequences of this programme. Even the policy debates largely extol the programme using intuitive notions and anecdotal evidence.
On August 14, a roundtable discussion was organised by Dr. Deborah Menezes, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom and Prof. Dr. P. Balasundarampillai, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka to define the role and importance of the roads. The discussion was facilitated by the University of Jaffna and took place under the chairmanship of Professor Ratnam Vigneswaran, Vice Chancellor, University of Jaffna. Various stakeholders, including academics, government officials, activists, local leaders and researchers delved to bring in different perspectives together on the topic.
The discussion sought to gather different perspectives, surveying expert opinion and to begin a conversation about the agendas of road rehabilitation in the North province of Sri Lanka alongside the realities of local communities. The participants commented on the rehabilitation of roads since the end of the war; however there were questions about the relationship of roads to economic development which was seen as lopsided. Some scholars nursed the view that the roads were constructed to facilitate the police and army to reach out to the so called disturbed areas to quell popular dissent. 
This has not been an isolated case. We have seen how even in India roads were built on war footing during the late sixties and early seventies in the areas which constituted the base of Naxalites.  Before the Naxalite movement took place, these areas had no transportable roads. The roads were massively used by the security forces to reach Maoist infested areas.  
The participants saw unevenness in two aspects; in relation to funding and development of other aspects of the local economy like fishing and agriculture, and secondly, in relation to the need for more access roads to villages. In relation to the first aspect, road has not been an inclusive agent of development. The neglect of other aspects of the economy in the Northern Province alongside a stress on main roads and the resulting neglect of rural roads are cue to this non-inclusion.
Concerns were, however, also raised about some exploitative nature of roads which end up exposing local areas to external markets without strengthening the local markets to face external competition. This is also linked to the fact that in the Northern province, since the war ended, the improvement has not been on in the quality of existing roads and the road network. The existing road network is the one built in the colonial period and the stress is in improving these roads which had been destroyed in the war. The prioritising of the improvement of roads too is related to marketing factors, one which benefits the external markets more than the local,
Besides road connectivity, the participants also highlighted issues on and alongside the road. This included the need for better public transport, facilities like footpaths for pedestrian use and toilets, among other needs. The absence of these facilities excludes certain groups, particularly on the basis of gender and class, from availing the benefits that roads bring.
The discussion closed with a call for a more holistic development approach in the Northern side. Physical infrastructure needs to take place alongside investments in other areas like social infrastructure, including health, education and other economic ventures like fisheries and agriculture. Finally the participants also echoed a need for further round table discussions to be organised on various issues related to development in the Northern Province.
The research is rooted in case studies of particular road projects in Pakistan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. These have been selected to bring to the fore how nation-building, neo-liberalism, ambition, environmental fragility and modernity feature in the story of contemporary road-building. In the Northern Province of Sri Lanka we are researching how road building is linked to nation building and development; and how these aims negotiate environmental change and ethnic relations. The project is academic in design and will contribute to various pressing and critical debates relating to power, neo-liberalism, post-conflict infrastructures and environmental futures. (IPA)

Thursday, 21 September, 2017