SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Roads and the politics of thought: Ethnographic approaches to infrastructure development in South Asia

‘Roads’ is a five year ethnographic research project on infrastructure development in South Asia. The project, funded by the European Research Council, will provide the first ethnographic account of the culture of ‘road builders’, their knowledge practices, interrelations and motivations.

‘Roads’ is headed by Edward Simpson, Professor in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. Simpson will work with research partners at the University of Edinburgh, and an award-winning collective of contemporary artists, CAMP, who are based in Mumbai, India.


Road-building is intertwined with most aspects of modern human history. However, the rate of road construction is increasing hyperbolically at the global level. In a wide range of national and international settings, roads are presented as panacea for all manner of social, developmental and political ills.

Globally, a staggering 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050, which is enough to circle the earth some 600 times. This figure predicts a 60% increase in the total length of roads from 2010. Nine-tenths of all road construction is expected to occur in the less prosperous nations, especially in Africa and Asia. Even assuming greater fuel and technology efficiencies, and that the percentage increase in traffic is less than the volume of new roads, this forecast also suggests an enormous increase in the amount of energy required to sustain mobility on such a scale. 

This research asks:
To what end? 
Who benefits? 
What ideas lie in the foundations of this new infrastructure? 

Roads are presented as solutions to poverty, ‘development’ and economic growth. Are they? What else might roads do? As cheap oil dwindles and questions of climate change remain, why are so many international institutions cultivating new roads?

The research will be rooted in case studies of road projects in Pakistan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. We selected these sites to highlight how nation-building, neo-liberalism, ambition, environmental vulnerability and modernity feature in contemporary road-building. We will look at the organisation of road building on the ground, in offices, and within a broader array of institutions and state bodies in national and international contexts in order to understand the global cultures of road-building practice.

The project will contribute to various pressing and critical debates relating to power, global justice and environmental futures. The project also involves CAMP, an art collective based in Mumbai, to encourage wider discussion among a broader range of constituencies.

Prof. Edward Simpson, Professor of Social Anthropology
Edward is Principal Investigator on the ROADS project and is actively involved in the research in India and Pakistan. He is the author of The political biography of an earthquake: Aftermath and amnesia in Gujarat, India (Hurst and OUP, 2013).

Shaina Anand & Ashok Sukumaran are part of an art collective in Mumbai known as CAMP. Their artistic projects engage with “infrastructures” as diverse as CCTV, radio, cable television, cycle rickshaws, electricity and sea trade. Their work combines a long-term interest in the mediations produced by such technologies with the production of open-access archives, and artworks themselves nestled in these contexts.

Case Studies

PMGSY Rural Roads Project, India
Srinivas Chokkakula’s research will be centred on the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) Second Rural Roads Project for India, which is a 5 year project to expand the rural road network in Northeast India to connect remote villages to markets and social services. Srinivas will explore how infrastructure investments are seen as engines of growth to maintain economic growth rates and remain competitive in global markets, as well as delving into the conflict between road building and environmental futures.

The Hazara Motorway, Pakistan
Khalid Chauhan’s focus of study is the Hazara Motorway being constructed to improve sub regional and regional connectivity and development. He will explore how in the context of Pakistan, donor funded big infrastructure project of roads is used to re-imagine Pakistan. This includes unpacking the politics of ‘Naya’ (New) Pakistan, nation building, stability, development, modernity, exclusion, marginalisation, governance, ethnicity and identity.

Tharparkar, Pakistan
Mustafa Khan’s research is based on the study of the coal mining project located in the southern Pakistan province of Sindh. The research will focus on the construction of 200 kilometres of roads facilitating access to the mine area. The mines are situated in the Tharparkar region, which shares a 500 kilometre frontier with India. Relations between Pakistan and India have remained tense since the countries became Independent in 1947. Such international relations necessarily colours the policies of Pakistan towards Tharparkar.

The exploitation of the mine requires the ‘negotiated resettlement’ of tens of thousands of people who are marginal to the interests of the national project in Pakistan. Before the Partition of the sub-continent, Sindh had close links with what is now western India. Today, the Tharparker district of Sindh continues to have a Hindu majority (60%, with the remainder Muslim). That the mine will displace religious and linguistic minorities adds to the sensitivity of the project.

Post-war Infrastructure, Sri Lanka
Kanchana Ruwanpura and Deborah Menezes focus on post-war Sri Lanka's infrastructure projects. They will explore the vast scale road building that taking place as a means of nation building, where fragile ethnic relations and environmental change also needs to be negotiated. The research will unpack how each of these registers are negotiated in the everyday cultures of road builders, planners and those affected by such mega projects; and what outcomes emerge when these vectors are inter-laced with complexities such as class, ethnicity and gender.

Male-Hulhule Bridge, Maldives
Luke Heslop and Laura Jeffery explore the challenges of planning and implementing infrastructure development projects in the Republic of Maldives. This archipelago of coral atolls is a fascinating and complex environment in which to study infrastructure: 90% of the territory’s surface area is water, land rises to only a couple of metres above sea level, and the contours of the landscape are constantly shifting with the changing currents and rising tides. Focusing on roads, bridges, and inter-island causeways, this project asks: how do archipelagic states develop connective infrastructure?

Tri-lateral Highway, Myanmar
This project focuses on road-building practices in Myanmar that are linking the country to South Asia. Since the opening of the country in 2012, several large scale road building projects have started. This research raises questions of power structures and inter-regional transformation, the engagement of local communities, and environmental awareness. A particular focus is placed on the multi-layered influences roads have on young people’s lives and the ways in which authorities envision Myanmar’s integration to the region.