The Political Economy of Rural Roads

For reading the post in PDF, go to Pol Eco of Rural Roads

Roads means Development!

Building roads is one of the favourite development agenda for the politicians in India. Construction of new roads, extending or widening the present roads and repairing the damaged ones hang high in every politicians mind as a sure shot vote winning formula. Provision of roads seems to be so obvious in the electoral manifesto that voters perhaps do not even consider it as a featured promise or a cognizable achievement of the candidates during the elections. Similarly policy makers across the government and non-government institutions also recommend building roads in rural, impoverished areas in such an oblivious manner that the subject never forays into critical policy forums.

On the other side, improved access to roads is also one of the most desired citations in village wish-lists (Ellis 1998). People see the presence of roads as a leap in the development ladder. In other way, poor road infrastructure is conceived to be a mark of a subordinate world, and hence instantly buckled with the term  ‘undeveloped’. Hence a far reaching effect of roads is their strong influence on people’s conscience which is central to incorporated citizenry of a state.

Such an exhibition of need and demand of roads from both state and the people understandably emerge from its supposed potential to relieve the rural folks from the drudgery and isolation of ‘living in a walking world’ (Porter 2002), access to better public service delivery- especially in education, agriculture, health and law, and opening up a broader range of employment and livelihood options. Rural roads are also believed  to reduce the cost of all types of spatial transactions, including labour, output, input and consumer markets (Ellis 1998).

Under-mined Political Economy of Roads

However it is important to critically think whether greater accessibility can always be assumed to reduce the rural cost of living, positively impact incomes and bring along a more flourishing and secure life. This paper does not takes a judgemental call on the need/demand of roads. However I am interested to understand the backroom considerations and unsuspected implications of roads in Indian rural context, a dimension largely unheeded in executive policy-making.  The high level of emphasis given to accessibility reflects how less the position of infrastructure is problematized in development discourse; so much so that often its apparent motives are accepted at face value. Such under-prepared policy and programmes that later emerge out of this discourse are bound to overlook the power relations, uncertain social behaviour, complexity of local economies and unpredictability of outcomes in everyday life (Wilson 2004).

A comprehensive thinking on the subject of roads in rural areas must critically consider the rationale or acceptable normative position reflected in the oft quoted tag line- ‘roads are imperative for development’. It must have a better  grasp  on the groups who have an interest in this suo moto normative position, and also the socio-economic and political conditions that they create to facilitate these interests. Moreover, who decides where are roads to be constructed, and the choice of areas to be covered or left? What does the current road network conveys about the local politics and economy? What is the nature of livelihoods spun around the scattered village paths and by lanes?

These questions are extremely crucial in India whose constitution deeply inherits the principles of democracy and civil rights. So the contention of roads being the state’s proxy tool to escalate territoriality to interiors and those regions at the fringe of its sovereign rule, must be reasonably debated. It has been argued before too that state envisages roads to make provinces legible to central authorities, as otherwise autonomous, illegible societies are deemed an eye-sore for their deterring character that tests the undisputed state authority and government (Scott 1998).

 Murky Patches on a Good Road

The under-contested political economy of roads do not confine just to the disguised state expansion.  It spreads upon a wider playfield that concerns with vote-bank politics, undue favouritism and even  forms of neo-colonialism. As seen in the case of Kenya, placement of roads was propelled by the politicians on a preferential basis to the regions that promise to be loyal vote banks (Burgess 2009). The attempt by international funding agencies to encourage road building must be scrutinised too. These agencies thrust governments to increase the investments in road infrastructure by pursuing typical rhetoric of modernity, which is always contrary to present ‘impoverished’ condition of the regions without roads and highways. In other words, tactics of mesmerising the governments and people by drawing examples of shining economic and social benefits due to roads, added to pressurising them by tagging lower credentials like ‘under-developed’ in absence of good road infrastructure works well for development agencies.

However the least under-stated facet of roads is their impact on local economy and sustainable practices. One of the main argument for more intense road building is their potential to increase real incomes in a macro-economic outlook (Banerjee 2012).  The argument is validated by a lot of empirical data (Sheperd 2006). But it fails to acknowledge that as a net affect a rise in real income does not reveal all the loss to marginal income. The increase in earnings might actually be experienced by few, like exporters, transport and construction contractors and large farmers, while a number of small earning individuals run a risk of losing their sustainable livelihoods in the long run as I’ll highlight in the next section.

Besides  loss of sustainable livelihoods, roads also pose a huge threat to ecology and wildlife of a region. The economics in the current format discount much of these losses. In my study in Kalibhit forest range in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh I observed an extent of these economic and ecological effects.

The Case of a Road in Madhya Pradesh

The State Highway 26 connects Indore to Akola (in Maharashtra). This stretch cuts through the  Kalibhit forest range which also comprises of a dozen villages and hamlets. Extension of SH 26 was the first step to urbanisation inviting a large number of market players to the villages. A new bunch of consumers using the road, encouraged a streak of retailers serving the new found demand for all sorts of goods and services. Shops dealing in spare parts, consumable goods, gadgets, internet and cable, fashion brands and a slew of eateries emerged within four years.

The new road eased the way of consumerism and market economy in the local villages who were until now thriving on interactive vertical economy.  Entrance of gadgets, tools, consumer products and technology in the rural society has spurred the money to its peak importance. People have more options now in comparison to past when their buying choices were limited. But to buy all the new stuff you need more money, and at a quicker pace. Hence the farmers and forest dwellers are bound to explore other modes of income with higher and faster returns.

Unfortunately this expedition is leading to a shift from subsistence to intensive forms of agriculture. It has also significantly raised the extraction of NTFP. For example, farmers here generally allowed their lands to be dormant for 2-3 months after Khareef season (January to March) until the monsoons. This period allows the soils to retrieve their minerals, ph. levels, and also avoids unnecessary pressure on groundwater table. It is anybody’s guess that a crop cultivated in summers will require much more water due to high rate of evaporation. Though if farmers decide to earn additional income from an extra crop in the year it will have considerable effect on soil and water.

Similarly, until the tribals harness the forests for NTFP for household and consumption the forests has enough. Only when a market price is attached to the Fire-wood or Gond  (Gum) or Safed Musli (Chlorphytum borivillianum) that their collection gets uncontrollable. The new economic environment also modifies the nature of forests from common property to open access resource. The excruciating ambition for higher earnings start a race among locals to extract as much as possible. As a result, complete species of a particular forest produce will be cleared in one season.

My field work in the pre-monsoon coincided with the end of Tendu patta collection season. I found not even a single middle storey Tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) across the forest range, though average height of these trees is 8-10 meters. The internal forest stretches which had a considerable distance from human settlement too were devoid of fully grown Tendu. Locals engaged in NTFP gathering  told how the full patch of bamboo forests in Kalighodi belt of East Kalibhit range will get steer cleared in two to three months after bamboo season starts post-monsoon stretching upto December.  Mahua has a similar case too.

Today a lot of NTFP has a high market demand and high price. Locals get large incentives in lieu of forest products both at local markets and in national and international markets. For example, the local procurment rate of safed musli went as high as sixteen hundred rupees a kilogram in 2011. Such lucrative returns are bound to appeal the locals to swell over the natural resources. Here lies the problem as well. The safed musli which was earlier collected by villagers only for their own medicinal purposes has now become a high-value market commodity. Earlier they would not clear-off every available plant in the forest. A lot of it will remain for langoors, macaques, sloth bear and other organisms who depend upon it for their nutritional needs. Today people traverse the deeper cores of forest as well, hardly leaving much for regeneration or consumption by wild animals.

End of the Road

In this paper, I do not argue against the case of road building in rural areas, Neither do I argue for weak accessability in the areas located in and around ecologically sensitive regions and those that have resident population of indigenous people/tribals. There is indeed a solid evidence in favour of roads being imperative for intense agro-practices that serve the needs of distant demand centres. Lack of access is also documented to have made regions vulnerable to radical elements like Maoists. Besides expansion of livelihood, tourism, essential goods and services and emergency and disaster relief services heavily depend on road connectivity.  Nonetheless roads also have a huge symbolic resonance among politicians and general citizens.

It is correct if roads are irreplaceable part of development barometer but it should as well regard the side-effects on economy, social interactions and ecology. This suggests it is worth exploring the questions of what else do roads bring besides better governance, increased livelihood and decreased poverty. Do roads penetrate forms of maximalist and exploitative economy that pushes the people to become players in a system that sets highly unfavourable terms for them right at the outset? Roads meant for rapid transit, divert the multitude of connectivity options formed by multiple tracks, paths and trails mingled with one another. It is difficult to assume that a single route could substitute multiple routes and forms of exchanges which act as a warranty to self-dependence and food security.

In the end, either position for and against the roads can be justified; however what we need is a careful analysis of the political economy in each case, to comprehend the real benefits or losses from onset  of roads. As Wilson points out, it is important to account for how rural people experience, imagine and represent their relationship with state, market and wider society and, in turn how they feel themselves experienced, imagined and represented by ‘outsiders’ (Wilson 2004).


Burgess, R., Jedwab, R., Miguel, E., & Morjaria, A. (2010). Our turn to eat: The political economy of roads in Kenya. In 2010 NEUDC Conference paper, MIT

Ellis, F. (1998). Household strategies and rural livelihood diversification. The journal of development studies, 35(1), 1-38.

Porter, G. (2002). Living in a walking world: rural mobility and social equity issues in sub-Saharan Africa. World development, 30(2), 285-300.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press.

Wilson, F. (2004). Towards a political economy of roads: Experiences from Peru. Development and Change, 35(3), 525-546.

Shepherd, B., & Wilson, J. S. (2006). Road infrastructure in Europe and Central Asia: Does network quality affect trade?. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 4104.

Banerjee, A., Duflo, E., & Qian, N. (2012). On the road: Access to transportation infrastructure and economic growth in China (No. w17897). National Bureau of Economic Research.


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