What’s in a road? Economics, a lifeline, and many finds it political. Just think of a bandh and it’s difficult to put away the political dimensions of road in Manipur. This brief takes a bit of a turn from disciplined observation to the common sensical musings, specifically about the road culture that may have multifarious ramifications. Envisioned as what may, the uncanny thing is, you start talking about infrastructure and it begins to get a little dodgy in Manipur. You may either be a progressive strongly advocating developmental works or being critical towards taxpayer’s contribution being siphoned off, it’s still a local cliché to brand the blurred vices as marauders of progress. All this while, the road is still there undisturbed, at peace with the potholes, and dirt comes easy in your stroll. To unravel why such road culture persists surprisingly unencumbered, a conjecture that is supposedly polemical between the commoner and the elite, political and economic, is being built and ask if there really exist a contradiction in their daily lives concerning the road. In other words, it gives an effort to answer, despite the difference in our beliefs towards the idea of development, particularly the parched road, can there be a convergence in practice to achieve a similar goal, a better road?
A good pothole, pretty euphemistically oxymoronic and practically seen as a moral morass of ecumenical scale yet beneficial to many for reasons best known to reality in a place like Ukhrul. It appears that roads in the district headquarter are not getting any better the whole year round because of the general acceptance in the status quo. On one hand, the community likes it that way because, they know it projects the image of their corrupt society in some way or the other, implicating an elite’s maneuver at the commoner’s cost. On the other, it’s been said, constructing a full weather proof road is never in the dairy of an elite or a contractor because of the need for intermittent contracts to repair it and the need to meet the tax of cause from various corners until the project is completed, among other reasons. Interestingly, even if the road remains the same, there is a dug-of-war in the development polemics between the two presupposed groups.
Both sides of the narratives seem to have woven a concrete reality behind their claims, the commoners being alluded to evasive responsibility in maintaining the road and the elite with little sense of commitment for a social cause perhaps. Both parties seem to love the durability of disarray as at hindsight, you can hardly see any responsible enquiry being made on the anomalies, nor any substantial change in the tussle to get a contract to patch up some good rough roads. Out of this paradox of keeping the road untamed with durable crevices when you do love a clean town, there is an insinuation of profit for every stakeholder from perpetuating the dusty road. The common man apparently could hold on to their moral imperatives, that they have been roped whereas the elites may not worry about their filling pockets. Conjectural as the scenario may be, the impediments seem real and justifiable and everyone appears to like the dusty and roaring yet peaceful road. Even if it’s a gravel road or a muddy one, potholes now and then, it’s all there being loved. Still, you cannot really downplay the deafening quibbles that are coming against such tide of moral justification and material fetishism.
Obviously, it may be said that the two given narratives are mimetic of an anti-development sentiment. It portrays a ready acceptance of an exceptionalism that alternative means are not viable. It would mean, Ukhrul could become a place where progressive actions are necessarily hemmed and coated with corroding outliers or has it been living that way for this long? The notion of the contrast between an elite and the commoner measurable through Gini-coefficient has not been the culture of the society few decades ago. But if it’s becoming a reality, the pace is really fast. Along with the statistical gap one may merely observe the sentiment emanating from the road condition and simply gauge the ideological gap already created between the commoner and the elite. More social problems seem to be in the offing. Delving further into the class matrix would change the gear of this brief even though it is inter-related. But brushing the town’s economic premise a little bit, it might be worthy to ponder if this disenchantment about the road is really a moral morass that no one wants to take the risk of getting involved simply to clean it up. This apparently remorseful reality however, may help us evade the misnomer of development bottlenecks to be particularly capital centric. The situation instead directs to a similar brouhaha generated by two bulls in a kraal. The kraal is not getting any cleaner. Before one really sink into the ruing of this unpopular skirmishes of thought, it might also be helpful to sense that the commoner and the elites alone does not cover the entire segment of the population for a place like Ukhrul, if it was, not anymore.
There might be a third party called the principled, unlike this author – a commoner, and the other – the elite. Whether that’s the middle class or others, the remaining can’t entirely be classed. There is also the state, the civil society, all interested in the road, who believes in leaving the road as it is or to repair. The middle class have been asked to own the road, there is a measure of progressive taxation to corroborate that responsibility. The civil societies will have to continue to advocate and voice for the cause of development. The state may be looking for a record of developmental works being completed through its time tested bureaucratically sinewed register of proof. If this observation is very harsh the potholes in Ukhrul might be harsher, one supposes, as the music of ignorant exceptionalism of the road culture continues. The third party is not helping too.
Regardless of the condition, situation and circumstance, a good road is coming to our homes. The commoners, elites and the third party aside, there is another side to this scenario. There is something in the geostrategic calculus. Manipur is strategically situated. The Will of the state cannot be divorced from harnessing it. The state has vouched for an Act East policy through North East India including Manipur. One of the main components of the policy is to link the infrastructural gap between the North East region with that of the South East Asian countries so that trade and social interaction may flourish along with increased political and economic interactions. A road reaches both ends and touches both sideways. So, a standard road speaks more than a zero-sum game. It is supposed to be a win-win situation. Building and repairing roads along the Ukhrul district might be driven by geostrategic factors yet the benefits that is to accrue will be local as well. One can only hope that people began to realise it is high time to think beyond the local kraal and find ways to support and protect the development initiatives in our land while simultaneously safeguarding our rights.
Shimreisa Chahongnao is a PhD student at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Views are personal.