by Mitul Baruah

My earliest memory of the spectacle of (modern) infrastructure and mass excitement that it generates goes back to the electrification of my village. It was the early 1990s and I must have been in 7th or 8th standard. It was a village located in Majuli River Island in Assam. I still remember the joyous mood in my village as it got connected to the grid. A community feast was organized in the village as part of the celebration of this new “development,” even though the access to electricity was limited to only a handful of households. I remember, as kids, we would go stand near the transformer located at one end of the village awestruck, listening to the unusual sound emanating from this machine. And for the elderly in the village, the evening conversations centered around various aspects of electricity, some facts and some myths, for the next several months.

Indeed, infrastructures are that powerful a thing. They are not simply technical objects that enable the circulation of matters; rather, as some scholars have pointed out, infrastructures embody desire and possibility, the collective fantasy of society. They evoke promises, imaginations, and a new, empowered sense of socio-spatial arrangement. No wonder we are constantly fed with the promises and potentials that come with gigantic infrastructures – bullet trains, expressways, industrial corridors, etc. for instance.

In what follows, I draw on certain infrastructures in Majuli to demonstrate what a many-splendored thing they are. In Majuli, infrastructures have been at once about desire and imagination, disaster and destruction, and social re-configurations. I would like to clarify at the outset that this paper is not a critique of infrastructures per se, nor is it a comprehensive, critical assessment of the socio-ecological impacts of modern infrastructures; instead, it is an attempt to observe the ways in which people relate to modern infrastructures and why.

Infrastructures as possibilities

If the coming of electricity felt like the start of a new dawn in my village, the concrete roads and bridges are seen to be much more revolutionary on the island as a whole today. Being a river island, crisscrossed with a network of water bodies, Majuli is full of bridges, which have been traditionally bamboo and wooden-bridges. Because such bridges are temporary in nature and their permissible weight limit is low, there has been growing demand for RCC bridges on the island.

The first large Reinforced Concrete Bridge (RCC) in Majuli was completed in 2010 with a length of about 135 meters (see adjacent pic). Thereafter, dozens of small and medium-sized RCC bridges have sprung up all over the island, both during the last government as well as under the current regime. Are the RCC bridges more effective than their wooden or bamboo counterparts? The answer may vary, but that’s not my focus here anyway. What intrigues me instead is the popular enthusiasm that these RCC bridges – or concrete infrastructures in general – have been able to generate among the island’s population.

Based on my conversations with numerous people in Majuli, it appeared to me that the enthusiasm for concrete infrastructures is not so much to do with their effectiveness per se. Rather, it is the form and the scale of infrastructure that seem to matter more. Unlike their traditional counterparts, the RCC bridges are about new materials, new technologies, a scale of intervention thus far not locally seen. They are about imagining the unexplored. For a large majority on the island, it does not really make much of a material difference if the bridge connecting their village with another village is made of wood/bamboo or concrete. Yet the enthusiasm for the latter is unprecedented. Take, for example, the case of election promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the 2016 assembly election. The party promised to build 4 gigantic bridges over the Brahmaputra connecting Majuli with Lakhimpur on the northern bank and Jorhat on the southern bank. What difference would these bridges make to the average person on the island? Perhaps some, perhaps none. But this announcement was enough to galvanize popular enthusiasm on the island as well as massive support for the BJP. Whether the bridges will be built or not and how they might impact the island is another matter, but for many on the island, what seem to have appeared revolutionary was the idea of such massive infrastructures and the fantasies that came with them.

Until this year, our village road was kaccha, although not inconvenient as such. However, there has been a steady popular demand for a concrete road, which has now materialized in 2018.

I was recently home when the construction work on the road was still undergoing. I asked many people in the village about their thoughts on the potential impacts of this newly built pukka road. They were not able to articulate clearly the specific impacts (both positive and negative) that this new development may have in their lives. However, almost everyone uttered: “Well, finally we’ve got a pukka road passing through our village, which calls for celebration.”

The most interesting aspect that I noticed during this visit was the influence that the road building project had on the “moral economy” in the village. As the road building was undergoing, whosoever house in the village the work reached at any given date, that household would arrange for tea and snacks for the laborers – voluntarily and with a great sense of ownership of the project. Pukka roads have been a key intervention by the current government all over the island (Majuli, by the way, is the constituency of the current Chief Minister of Assam). Thus, during the same visit, I also noticed a general sense of euphoria over these projects on the island as a whole. To add to this, I had also found out that in the past few months, picnics from Majuli to the recently completed Dhola-Sadiya bridge, currently the longest bridge in India located in Tinsukia district, have been a regular phenomenon. I asked myself: why do they go to Dhola-Sadiya all the way? After all, bridges are nothing new for the people of Majuli? But I realized nonetheless that the Dhola-Sadiya is not any ordinary bridge. It is a giant infrastructure, a spectacle. It not only allows the movement of people and goods but in it lies the idea of possibility, great transformation, imagining the impossible.

Infrastructure as disasters

Not all infrastructures have the same effect, however, Majuli, for instance, has seen a proliferation of earthen embankments over the years as flood control measure. These embankments breach, leak, and produce distinct spatiality of flood vulnerabilities on the island. Hence, the people on the island have come to associate these infrastructures with disasters. The same people have, however, reacted to the concrete roads and RCC bridges with great enthusiasm. So, is it to do with the materiality of infrastructures? Does the concrete – in other words, modern – evoke a particular popular imagination that the traditional materials and technologies cannot? Is the popularity of modern infrastructure, then, rooted in the

Spur No. 1 in Salmora, Majuli.
Spur No. 1 in Salmora, Majuli.

form and scale that these infrastructures take? Perhaps one can argue that a combination of factors, namely, the materiality and scale of infrastructure, along with the idea of connectivity with the world – that is, the desire to be part of the global – that certain infrastructures purportedly promise, is what makes (modern) infrastructures seem so magical to popular imagination. One wonders if the state has been able to uncover and tap into this very desire of its subjects. Does it explain the Assam government’s recent push towards converting the earthen embankments in Majuli into concrete? Or, the increased emphasis on roads and bridges is general for that matter?

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The story of Majuli is a story of infrastructure too. Whether it is the roads, bridges,embankments, spurs or geobags, infrastructures are always at the center stage of popular conversations on the island. They are what we talk about all the time, sometime with awe and enthusiasm, other times with utter disdain. At times, some of these infrastructures bring the island community together and shape its moral economy, but they also cause social uproars, fractures, and power asymmetries. In the end, I wonder if we need an alternative imagination of infrastructures.

Mitul is native of Majuli and teaches Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University.

(The Pictures used are by the author and the PangSau Collective.)