Highways: Lines On The Palm
Or Tattoos Of Dictatorship ?
By Vandana Shiva
17 March, 2004
have become contemporary India's distorted identity. They are at the
heart of the "India Shining" imagery.
Prime Minister Vajpayee
has been quoted as saying that:
Roads are like
the lines on the palm. There is a line of destiny which is going to
join Srinagar to Kanyakumari. We want to see that day when we start
from Kanyakumari and reach Srinagar with ease.
The redefining of
India is a forgetting of Bharat. The writing of our fate in cement is
an unwriting of the fate of our soil, our land and our ecology. In India,
we have viewed our mountains and rivers as the "lines of the palm".
They are an intrinsic part of the ecology and geography of our m other
land. They are our givens and our givers.
Highways are not
lines on the palm, they are more like tattoos -- black marks imposed
by external design on the landscape - a design that is centralising
and excluding, a design used by Hitler to control Germany's destiny
in another period. The violence of this externally imposed design is
symbolised in the murder of an engineer, Dubey, who tried to expose
the corruption in highway contracts and shaped by the World Bank and
IMF in our times. We have been intimately connected to our land, our
rivers, our mountains. The earth has shaped our destiny. And through
this connection, we have also been connected as a civilisation - from
Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
The sources of the
tributaries of the Ganges are the "Char Dhams" -- people across
the country undertake the pilgrimage to the Himalaya and Yamunotri,
Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. It did not need a highway to bring
the people of the South to this pilgrimage -- it needed the sacred bond
with our mountains and rivers. And in fact the pilgrimage had value
because it was undertaken on foot. India has celebrated the "Padyatra"
(the foot march). Gandhi's Dandi March was a Padyatra. Chipko spread
in the High Himalayas through Padyatras. Even today thousands walk to
take Gangajal home for Shivrathri as "Kavadias". Most women
in rural India walk on foot to collect fodder, fuel and water. This
walk will increase as more trees are cut, less water renews our wells
and streams because the cement and tarcoal of highways covers our soils
and strangulates recharge.
in our imagination of our sacred rivers with highways, of our connection
to the sacred earth her mountains and forests with connection through
automobiles, cement and tarcoal, is rewriting India's ecology, culture,
history and distinctiveness and adopting an obsolete outmoded, unsustainable
model of development from the west with its high social and environmental
Tagore had reminded
us that India is distinctive because it is an "Aranya Sanskriti".
It derives its inspiration from the forest and the living world, unlike
the west which derives its cultural characteristics from dead brick
And Gandhi stated
seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing
This civilisation is such that one has only to be patient and
it will be self-destroyed
there is no end to the victims destroyed
in the fire of (this) civilisation. Its deadly effect is that people
come under its scorching flames believing it to be all good.
It is a charge against
India that her people are so uncivilised, ignorant and stolid, that
is a charge really against our strength. What we have tested and found
true on the anvil of experience, we dare not change. Many thrust their
advice upon India, but she remains steady. This is her beauty, it is
the sheet anchor of our hope.
distinctiveness of leaving a small ecological footprint on the planet
is being erased in a race to become like the industrialised west --
usurping the ecological space of other beings, of tribal and rural communities
and the urban poor.
and the automobile is the ultimate cultural symbol of non-sustainability
and ecological exclusion.
Our roads had place
for the cow, the horse, the camel, the elephant, the car. We are now
privileging the car owner. Delhi has announced that by the end of 2004,
Delhi's roads will be "cow free". Earlier they were made "cycle
The Highway and
Automobile culture are symbols of totalitarian cultures which deny people
more sustainable and equitable alternatives for mobility and transport.
To go from Kanyakumari
to Kashmir, India has the biggest network of railways. Yet the advertisements
of the Highway projects talk as if the absence of super highways imply
that there is no mobility for the people of India. Our leaders are blind
to the experience that the west has had in giving up more sustainable
and people friendly transport alternatives for road transport. Road
transport accounts for 91% air pollution, 64% noise pollution, 91% land
coverage, 56% of construction and maintenance, 98% accidents in Germany.
Road transport is
8 times more polluting, 10 times more land destroying, and 20 times
more accident prone than rail transport. Road transport accounts for
17% of al CO2 pollution which is leading to climate instability. Please
see figure 2. All these externalities are known. Yet India's rulers
are choosing the most obsolete, crude costly form of transport as a
symbol of "India Shining".
(Road) was part of the BJP's election slogan in the assembly elections.
Given the number of Highway Advertisements in the lead up to the general
elections, the Indian public can be sure that the Highway and Automobile
will be sold as symbols of a brave new India. The Highway has become
the Prime Minister's Bharat Jodo Pariyojna (PMBJP). The advertising
agencies have ensured that Highways= BJP in the minds of the public.
But we need to take
lessons from history and other societies. We have a century of experience
with the ecological and social violence of the automobile. We can save
ourselves from becoming its slave. And we have lessons from Nazi Germany
where Highways were designed as means of centralised control, facism
and dictatorship not of human freedom and democracy.
As Wolfgang Sachs
states in his classic "For the Love of the Automobile".
live not only by force but also by emotional appeal the shining eyes
of the man on the street are as much a part of the image of the time
as the Gestapo at dawn. A history of this enthusiasm in the period of
German facism has yet to be written. Yet whoever undertakes to eavesdrop
at the corner bar and uncover that consent from below amid the oppression
from above will have to make room for a chapter about the National Socialists'
Prime Minister Vajpayee's
groundbreaking for his "pet" highway projects has parallel
images of Adolf Hitler's groundbreaking for the Frankfurt Basel Hanseatic
Highway on September 23, 1923. The "Reich Automobile Law"
which made the Highways possible took away responsibility from the states
and concentrated it at the national level.
roads replaced the pluralism and democracy of transport. A memorandum
of that time identified the countryside as the biggest impediment to
the automobile because
it is expected
to share the streets, with horse-drawn carriages, bicyclists and pedestrians
modern concept of traffic engineering is to introduce a network of special
highways, to serve the needs of long-distance travellers and to be used
by the fastest automobiles (for which it is meant)
of the Mind which has destroyed biodiversity in farms and forests, which
has fuelled communal hatred, is now being brought to India's landscape
and roads. The car owner and long distance traveller is a privileged
citizen. The bullock cart, the bicycle, the pedestrian has to be displaced
for the automobile, which so far was just one among many modes of transport.
India's diverse and pluralistic fabric is being rewritten in a very
basic way by the Pradhan mantri's Bharat Jodo Pariyojna -- the Highway
project. Hitler too raised "National Highways" to create the
Volksgemeinschaft (national society) connected as "one people,
one Reich, one Fuhrer" but this involved wiping out diversity,
autonomy and decentralisation. Nazi Germany used highways "to mould
the German people into unity". India's current rulers are also
using the Highway as a means and metaphor of moulding India into one
The Indian ads of
(in 50 years): Just 556 km of 4/6 laned National Highways built ie 11.12
km per year.
1997 onwards: With
PMBJP 24,000 km of 4/6 lane National Highways being build ie., 11 km
per day employing 5 lakh persons everyday.
The Nazi ads used
similar measures of achievement. Road building was the biggest construction
project, with 6,000 km of road planned, and nearly a million jobs created
as a result of the motorisation policies. The "India Shining on
tarmac" ads find a parallel in the euphoria of the German Reich.
The National Socialists presented road building as both a technical
achievement and a cultural feat. As the Inspector General of German
Roads, Fritz Todt stated after the first thousand miles were built :
It is once again
a matter of pride to be a road builder. The German Reich is getting
roads the levels of which, in their magnitude and beauty, have never
been built in the history of human culture
The government in
India is trying to outdo the German Reich.
India in the 21st
century needs to be building on Gandhi's legacy, not Hitlers. It needs
to avoid repeating the ecological and social mistakes of the western
industrialised countries. India has offered civilisational alternatives
based on sustainability and pluralism. As Gandhi wrote,
God forbid that
India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.
The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is
today keeping the word in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million
took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare
We are today 1 billion.
And we are being asked to adopt the lifestyles and economies of the
20% of humanity which has been using 80% of the world's resources. If
200 million rich Indians want to live like their western counterparts,
800 million of their brothers and sisters will have to give up their
water, their land, their homes and their livelihoods. The highway project
is not uniting India, it is dividing India. It is creating an automobile
apartheid in which the rich drive past at high speed on highways built
by cutting through villages and forests, tearing down homes, farms and
trees robbing their brothers and sisters of the livelihood and life
support base. Superhighways are not our destiny or the lines on the
nation's palm. They are graveyards of cement and tarcoal, which are
burying our soils, our villages, our freedoms