Highways Can Turn Parasitic

Tone Bleie


Highways have vastly different connotations in development parlance. In political discussions, informed by neoliberal ideas, highways are potent positive symbols and conduits of economic growth, spurred through vehicle transport of goods, services, ideas and people. In equity-oriented development debates, scope of public policies to overcome social and economic inequality remains an ever-present topic. Highways are considered potentially extractive, even parasitic in nature if they function as conduits for mobility of cheap goods and services produced by exploitable labour. Conduits produce increased market access and augment profit margins in complicated production and service delivery chains from primary producers and transporters to buyers and consumers.

The chains involve highway transport and sales that exploit marked differentials, connecting underpaid labour, cheap raw materials and products with profit maximising brokers, middlemen, end producers and ultimate sellers. Whether informed by social democratic or socialist ideas, critical thinking assumes road connectivity can produce redistributive effects if infrastructure is deliberately coupled with forward and backward reinforcing linkages. Are linkages simply rapidly increasing network of blacktopped or gravel district and local roads?
No, more has to be in place. At the heart of the matter are functionally tiered governments that promote socially and environmentally responsible business and investment and provide a range of social, financial and environmental services. Such governments generate income based on progressive taxation, promote justice and reconciliation, and foster community security and stewardship of water and land resources. Such institutionalised networks enable communities, voters, elected bodies and service providers to align with responsible market actors to actually tame and harness raw capitalistic market forces. Taming boasts rural food production and render rural living safe, dignified and financially attractive for young and elders alike. Incentives and regulative frame-conditions enable local industries and food producers to control and own transport links and create market niches.
Never earlier in Nepal’s history has national and trans-border connectivity on such massive scale (roads, rails, air and even sea, via second countries) been proposed, negotiated, approved and launched in partnerships between government of Nepal, its neighbours, international banks and Western bilateral partners. Much is at stake for Nepal’s future. The rhetoric on connectivity centres on one premise that the national and (sub) regional integration fosters macroeconomic growth, security and peace. My main concern is Nepal’s densely trafficked highways and roads that carry around 90 per cent of all passengers and goods. How do we plan major and local road networks to function in tandem with government policies, socially and environmentally responsible investors, contributing to the redistributive effects? Guidance may be drawn from war-torn countries in Africa and Asia and neighbouring Himalayan states, but also from Nepal.
One literally stares me in the face as public planner, the East-West Highway. The construction phase of this pioneering Sino-Nepal joint venture started in 1967. Completed in late 1973 and named Prithivi Highway after modern Nepal’s unifier king, the project was central to the authorities’ state-building ambitions. Over nearly five decades, 200-km road has connected the capital valley with Pokhara, with the Terai and India. A recent intersection leads to the Sino-Nepal border at Rasuwa. Travelers may at first glance think they witness an expanding growth-oriented development that literally draws farmers and traders into a dynamic market and transport ambit. After all, why should not distant villages gradually benefit from the ambit?
They are fairly dynamic forward highway-close links and too weak backward links. The imbalanced growth offers certain routes of economic and social mobility. Segments of ultra-poor, many formerly untouchables enter new occupations, leaving behind abject poverty, emboldened by the Maoists’ anti-caste agitation. Small farmers get more market dependent. Combined with new awareness of the value of education, they have invested their earnings in primary, secondary and tertiary education, aside from property investments. This massive human capital formation in the five districts along the Highway was not harnessed by a progressive labour market policy, deliberately aimed at sustainable rural-urban livelihoods. Years of governance vacuum of poorly functioning central and local bodies is a key factor here.
The result: a post-Gurkha era of international youth migration on a massive scale. This was initially coping responses during the armed conflict, but migration turned into a semi-permanent strategy due to massive neglects of successive governments. What a terrible irony of the history of ‘People’s War’. After a decade of armed struggle within which youths made the largest sacrifices as civilians and the battlefield, so many in this generation are compelled to leave new Nepal for periled jobs as construction workers, guards and maids in some of the global economy’s most exploitative labour markets. Nevertheless, beyond Highway glitz and dependence on remittances, pockets of local growth with distributive effects exist, providing some youth employment and lifting not only the poorest and small farmers out of poverty. Locals from the former VDCs Manakamana and Bandipur have made fortunes. In these two historically capital-connected localities, the first through royal sponsorship of a temple and the second of a market hub, new road connectivity gradually supplanted old trail connectivity.
Witnessing how the East-West Highway changed character over 25 years while working in four of the districts situated along the road, I have earned an extraordinary instructive experience. It used to connect urban centres, nearby hamlets and townships with distant rural trail connected settlements. Since the onset of armed conflict, the nature of the highway started to change fast. Cash strapped and unsafe villagers moved down for work and market outlets. The road became a flight route and at times a theatre of war. After the armed conflict ended, many who initially lived in rented or temporary shelters constructed permanent houses. Ancestral farms and villages some hours or a day’s walk away, became gradually half-empty. The Highway developed after the war into a typical semi-urban sprawl. The sprawl is a dynamic, extended settlement and transport ore with fragments of both urban and rural traits.
Why semi-urban? Firstly, it is because of massive increase in the roadside permanent habitation and the growth of market activities. Secondly, because as the Highway is becoming a strikingly standardised it is creating increasingly urban cultural landscape of the nation. A remarkable road-side expansion of public and private schools took place since the early 1990s.
The sprawl represents a massive demographic shift. Formerly sparely inhabited rural districts morphed into two: a concentrated, nearly continuous way-side sprawl and a tapped hinterland. The winding belt can be compared with a beadlike mala. In this regional mala, Manakamana and Bandipur are jewels whose fascinating connectivity stories of old fame, recessions and new glory deserve better treatment. A peculiar character of habitation of the semi-urban sprawl is a largely standardised cultural landscape of concrete multistoried houses in glass and steel with gray colours. Both private and public buildings exhibit identical imported architectural styles akin to urban neighbourhoods in Kathmandu Valley, representing the alchemy of modernity. Much of the building mass represents a blatant breach with surrounding vernacular rural architecture.
Still fragments of it exist. Tucked between and behind painted ornamented three-four storied buildings stand one and two-storied traditional farmhouses. They are stark reminders of the old habitat’ principle, houses organically fitted into the sloping hillsides.

On a last note, sprawl residents’ consumptive lifestyle is increasingly urban. Just take a close look next time you travel on smartphone use and youngsters’ clothes, hairstyles and posh school uniforms. Whether you want quality cappuccino, an unhealthy bowl of instant noodles, sweet fruits, jeans of a hot brand or a resort weekend, the East-West Highway has it all.
(Bleie is a professor of Public Policy and Planning at UiT, the Arctic University of Norway and visiting professor at Centre for Nepal and Asia Studies, TU.) 

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