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Super Highways: Lines On The Palm
Or Tattoos Of Dictatorship ?

By Vandana Shiva

17 March, 2004

Superhighways 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.

The substitution 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 costs.

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 mortar.

And Gandhi stated that

modern civilisation seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so… 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.

Our civilisational 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.

The superhighway 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 rickshaw free".

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".

The "sadak" (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".

Dictatorships 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' motorisation policy.

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.

"Autos-only" 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……The 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) …(p49 Wolfgang Sachs)

The Monoculture 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 monolith.

The Indian ads of 2004 state:

"1947-1997 (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 like locusts.

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