Power of the road

For any longtime observer, the villages of Southasia, even in very remote areas, are today changing rapidly and dramatically. There are several reasons for this, the most significant of which is the construction of new roads, which are increasingly penetrating into more and more valleys and hamlets hitherto inaccessible by motorised transport. In addition, radio, telephone and television networks continue to expand; and drinking-water and electrification schemes, both large and small, are bringing the countryside onto the same grid. Village folks are now beginning to enjoy some of the perks of modernity. All the while, the flow of remittance monies earned by people working in other parts of Southasia or overseas is helping to transform their home country.

In Nepal, rural inhabitants generally like a road coming into their village, or even just passing nearby. As Bhakta Bahadur Shrestha from Karidhungha in Dolakha district east of Kathmandu says: 'Since the road is passing in front of my house, I feel connected with the outside world – we're no longer isolated like we were. Now, I enjoy taking the bus to Kathmandu to see my grandchildren.' Roads go in two directions, however. Another man, Krishna Lal from Nigale, in Sindhupalchok district, worries that since his village has been connected by road to Kathmandu, many people have been losing their traditional values, particularly the youth.
Roads can also make decisions that people, and communities, might not otherwise. For instance, engineers designing a new road will often be forced, for a variety of reasons, to put the road through villages far from where a traditional footpath had gone. The effect is clear throughout Nepal today, as some villages are suddenly isolated – cut off, ironically, by a road that is otherwise meant to connect. This is the case at Gumukhol Bazaar in the east-central Tamakosi Valley, on the old trading route from Dolakha to Tibet. Since the new road bypasses Gumukhol Bazaar, shopkeepers have been forced to shift to nearby the Singati Bazaar, a site that is experiencing an extraordinary construction boom. Shops, hotels, homes and a hospital are coming up at Singati – a place that, just last year, had only a few scattered dwellings. But not all Singati inhabitants are happy with the change. One woman, running a tea shop, complains about the dust that now washes over her village – and into her customers' tea – every time a truck or bus speeds down the road.
Even in places where there are no roads (at least not yet), the changes of 'development' are sweeping in. Over the last few decades, the people of Phu, an isolated village in Manang district near the border with Tibet, abandoned the fortified hilltop on which their ancestors had long been living. Instead, they built new houses around the base of the hill. They say it had become too costly to keep up the century-old house, which was also far more difficult to access than their new houses lower down. While the fort had originally been built for security reasons, particularly to deal with regular raids from the surrounding valleys, this was no longer necessary.
In Braga, in the valley to the southwest of Phu that is also a popular tourist destination, a road is under construction that will be motorable within a few years. In spite of the increasing number of tourists visiting this valley every year, and generating income for lodgeowners, the vast majority of the original population of the village has left for Kathmandu or overseas. Instead, the men and women working in the hotels, new constructions and even in the fields are migrant labourers from down the valley of the Marshyangdi River. Meanwhile, for tourist-dependent areas such as Manang, how the presence of the new road will affect the image of what has long been seen as a trekkers' paradise remains an unanswered question. 
A new road can also stimulate the economy of a particular area or even group of people. The high valley of Gabral, in the Swat area of Pakistan, had long been inhabited by the seminomadic Gujjar community, having been pushed there by the original inhabitants living further down the valley. When a road was finally put in connecting Gabral to the lower areas, the Gujjars jumped at the new opportunity: converting common grazing area into potato fields, to sell to the down-country markets. With this the Gujjars, once a marginal group, extended their cultivated land by over 200 percent, und were able to gain significant new wealth. That is the power of a road.
~ Fritz Berger is a Swiss-born photographer who has been travelling Southasia for four decades. For some images in the accompanying photo feature, thanks to ICIMOD.
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Himal Southasian