13-15 August 2018

Conference panel “Fragile Infrastructures, Secure Nation: On the Making of Ruins in Highland Borderlands”
6th Meeting of the Asian Borderlands Research Network, Bishkek

https://asianborderlands.net

Participants: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi and Alessandro Rippa (LMU Munich)

In the highlands of Asia, construction of roads, railways and airports in previously inaccessible and peripheral territories represent a major element of nation building. The Pamir Highway, for instance, was fundamental to Soviet governance in Central Asia. A similar argument can be made for the roads and railway connecting eastern China and the Tibet Autonomous Region. In Kashmir, roads and airports were for the most part the results of strategic considerations, and the role of the army in their construction, use and maintenance remains crucial. Today the strategic motivations for infrastructure construction are increasingly downplayed by the discourse of transnational connectivity in trade and development which transportation infrastructures, reportedly, automatically generate. Often brought under the umbrella of so-called “economic corridors” such massive infrastructures are, we are told by the proponents of such projects, means for commercial and cultural exchanges, not devices of securitisation.

On the ground, such promises meet a harsh reality, in which infrastructures are conspicuous for their fragility and on-going disintegration. We argue that this intrinsic fragility of infrastructures, as well as the central role of maintenance should be more explicitly addressed, both empirically and conceptually. In this panel, we discuss the implications of such fragility in border regions, where infrastructures have for decades served as the main means of nation-building for border communities.

Conceptually, we contend that infrastructures should be analysed from within their social, material and political environments and entanglements. Construction is from the beginning accompanied by a parallel process of ruination, and maintenance often becomes the main way of engagement for the lowland state. Infrastructural fragility, it could be argued, both reflects the contentiousness of any nation-making process, while also providing the state with an opportunity to secure its presence across contested borderland spaces. A challenge, as well as an opportunity.

Papers in this panel explored this contentious nexus, and discussed the following themes:

  • the ontological fragility of infrastructures and how it affects the maintenance of state materiality in the highlands of Asia;
  • ethnography-based case studies of the politics of maintenance;
  • what happens when different layers of ruins, often the result of different state interventions, co-exist in a particular space;
  • how promises of peace, modernity and wealth are inscribed onto infrastructures and navigated vis-à-vis mundane experiences of disruption and decay.

Speakers:

Till Mostowlansky, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva
The Longest Construction: Building and Shattering the Borderlands of the Pamir-Karakoram

Mia Bennett, The University of Hong Kong
Between Permafrost and a Hard Place: Loss and Livelihoods Amidst Post-Soviet Infrastructural Decline

Mustafa Khan, SOAS, University of London
China Coal Roads in Pakistan and the Contradictions of Modernity

Björn Reichhardt, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Boon and Bane: Fencing off Livelihoods in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger Districts

Discussant: Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi

After a series of fantastic conference panels during the day (“Borderland Commodities: In and out of the Legal Shadows”; “Liquid Undercurrents: Infrastructure and the Border Lives of Fuel, Water, and Cash”; “Resurgent Frontiers: Mobility, Regulation and Infrastructure in South Asian Borderlands”; “Hyperbuilding Highland Asia: Ethnographic Engagements with Emerging Infrastructural (Geo)Politics”; “Cross-Border Social Interactions and Tensions in Central Asia”; “Ocean Grabbing and Ocean Re-claiming in Asian Maritime Borderlands” and “Local Responses to Infrastructural Degradation”)our colleagues from anthropology and geography departments across Europe, the US and Asia convened in the evening at the house of our Kyrgyz host Bakytbek for a seriousnetworking event.

Dear Bakytbek and family, we are very grateful for your hospitality, thank you so much for facilitating our gathering.

Photo: Matthäus Rest
Photo: Matthäus Rest