Choosing Paths, Not Roads

By Madhuri Karak, CUNY Graduate Center §

Photo by author.

Walking in Niyamgiri, in Odisha, India, never ceased to be a sensorial onslaught for me. There are no asphalt roads, only trails and paths flanked by dense forests. During the monsoons, even these disappear under streams of mud. People commonly distinguish between raasta – road – and jongol raasta, roads in the forest. The latter refers to shortcuts between villages that have existed long before built roads began to make an appearance. I say roads, but they were often little more than grass bent by footsteps into the shape of one. Even today, there are villages that can only be accessed on foot, via arduous hiking for several hours across valleys and rivulets. On market days, women, men and children spend up to five hours walking to and from the market bearing heavy loads of wood and produce. All hospitals are in the plains, clustered around two railhead towns – Muniguda in the east and Bissamcuttack in the west. At higher elevations, state-run primary school buildings stand either deserted or transformed into crop storage facilities for adjacent villages. When I inquire after this reversal, schoolteachers playing truant and patiently waiting students, villagers shrug. Officials attribute teachers’ absenteeism to inaccessibility and fear surrounding rumors of Maoist guerrillas in the forest.

Access, or its lack thereof, has a two-fold reality. Niyamgiri is inaccessible to outsiders, and the outside as embodied in markets, hospitals and schools remain relatively inaccessible for its residents. On the other hand however, physical and social mobilities propelled by logics of livelihood, clan and fraternity proliferate within the hills. Their preferred mode is the jongol raasta or forest roads, producing an oppositional subjectivity at direct odds with the developmentalist state.

The Niyamgiri region straddles two districts and five blocks[1] in India’s southeastern state of Odisha. Its flat-topped hills first appear in the colonial record as a site of primitive savagery: a series of expeditions between 1837 and 1861 were led by British military officers to root out the practice of human sacrifice – meriah[2] – among Niyamgiri’s Kondh[3] hill residents. In addition to coercion as a form of control, the colonial government also proposed the opening of roads and markets to improve the economic and spiritual condition of this tribe. Communication and assimilation into market capitalism remain key features of state-driven uplift for India’s designated PTGs, Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups[4], a project currently under siege from left-wing extremist groups and anti-development social movements.

Niyamgiri is part of the Eastern Ghats ecosystem, a discontinuous series of mountains hugging the eastern coast of India. It consists of fewer peaks than its western corollary, the Western Ghats, but holds swathes of deciduous forests and the country’s largest deposits of coal, iron ore, manganese and bauxite. In addition, almost half of India’s 84 million Scheduled Tribes or adivasis[5], as tribal communities prefer to call themselves, live here. According to some historians, the gradual expropriation of tribal land by migrant rulers, who encouraged sedentary cultivation in order to ensure a steady tax base, has pushed tribals into the interior peninsula over the last four hundred years. Before the British, Kondhs in southern Odisha had a relationship with native rulers based on tributary payments and mutual recognition. Even after the region’s formal absorption into the Madras Presidency[6], complaints about the Kondhs’ recalcitrant, violent nature and the administrative and fiscal challenges this posed, were frequent. Colonial objectives of extraction and rule stumbled repeatedly in the face of the terrain’s inaccessibility, lack of pukka roads and insalubrious climate.

Developing infrastructure – roads, railways – that could facilitate access to timber and non-timber forest produce [bamboo, grass, tendu leaves used for rolling cigarettes] is a priority that continues to shape central and state government policy in the post-independence period. Bauxite was discovered in Odisha in the late 1980s and following financial liberalization in 1991-92, there has been a slew of multinational corporations eager to extract bauxite for aluminum production. Resource extraction requires infrastructure, primarily roads, to transport ore, labor and materials from the extraction site to the refinery. Almost all refined aluminum produced in India is for export; a small percentage is absorbed by the domestic manufacturing sector. In 2001, a memorandum of understanding for bauxite mining was signed between the Odisha state government and British corporate giant Vedanta. A flurry of construction took off immediately, even before the Environmental Protection Assessment [or the public hearing, an important component of the EPA designed to elicit citizens’ objections/concerns] had taken place. By 2003, a sleepy village called Lanjigarh in the plains had transformed into a busy township. A refinery had been built; gleaming roads connected Lanjigarh to railway stations within a 20 km radius and further south to Vizag, a port city in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh; and conveyor belts to transport the ore to the refinery were snaking towards the mountains. Mining had not begun, but 3000 Kondhs living in the foothills had already been violently displaced by this preliminary phase. All accounts of this period note the divisive role played by middlemen, locals hired by the mining company to “turn” tribal communities reluctant to give up their land in exchange for money or jobs. They also point to what might have saved the day for Niyamgiri at that time: its lack of roads and thick forests had kept the company from trampling in. Inaccessibility had its advantages. While the need for roads to access resources was undisputed, their absence had become a factor in preventing land grab in Niyamgiri.

Photo by author.

The weather changes abruptly in Niyamgiri. A sunny morning motorcycle ride from the weekly market at Trilochanpur became a slow trudge through grey drizzle by the afternoon. The pitched road ended abruptly, and a steep path strewn with boulders took its place. The forest floor was going to be slippery because of the rain and the elevation made it even riskier to drive. We abandoned the vehicles and began walking. Our motley crew of two activists, one researcher and three contractors was fairly representative of outsiders who sought out Lado Sikaka’s village Lakhpadar, on a regular basis. Lado was one of three Kondh elders at the forefront of the anti-mining organization Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti [Niyamgiri Protection Committee, henceforth NSS]. The drizzle had turned into a downpour, and one of the contractors commented on the potential for canal irrigation and watershed development in these higher ranges. Currently the agricultural season in Niyamgiri is one-crop. Lado’s response was swift: “When have I said no to either? But you contractors will say, how can we transport cement without roads? We have no roads. And we have no teachers either. Or health workers. We have no one. Except the police of course, to catch Maoists. Are the jungle, the fruit trees, the tigers, all the animals, paths and people of Niyamgiri Maoists? Then I too am a Maoist. An anti-nationalist.”

Roads make places and people legible, allowing for surveillance and administration. Unsurprisingly, counter-insurgency operations in southern Odisha emphasize improved connectivity as crucial to ridding the area of guerrillas. Surrounded by high peaks, Lakhpadar is nestled in a valley. Sikaka was arrested in August 2010 as an alleged Maoist, but on the state highway, en route to the train station in Muniguda. No FIR was lodged and he was released after four days of severe beating in prison. The road is a charged signifier for Sikaka. He fears roads as a precursor to an inevitable loss of forests to the marauding forces of state and capital, a ‘outflow’ that cannot be compensated by the ‘inflow’ of state largesse in the form of health, education or agricultural extension services. At a deeper level, his fear is offset by a rejection of the Indian state and the state’s defining imperative, the production of citizen-beneficiaries. Development, according to Sikaka, always comes holding Vedanta’s tail[7]. When another leader Dodi Pusika lists the benefits the state does provide – subsidized housing, rice at the price of 1 rupee per kilo and cooking kerosene – it is not with a beneficiary’s gratitude, but defiance. “But what of the police who surround our villages in the name of catching Maoists? Do Maoists live in houses like ours? We are not leaving this mountain, this forest, this land or this air,” he declares. Block-level bureaucrats on the other hand are adamant that Maoists not only consider Niyamgiri their safe space but also interfere routinely in Kondh affairs. Incensed, they recount instances of Kondh villages refusing schools, tube wells and roads as part of various policy packages. For the administration, this rejection only makes sense within a narrative of innocent tribals manipulated by extremist outsiders. Some like revenue officer Tapan Satpathy are more emphatic: “This anti-development attitude…there is no hope for people who do not want to learn, who are happy to climb trees like monkeys[8] for the rest of their lives.”

It is the very nature of roads, a form of infrastructure steeped in “unbearable modernity” (Larkin 2013) that entrenches the violent exclusions of colonial and post-colonial political and material orders. Roads promise not only connectivity, but also national unity and cohesiveness in a part of the country that lacks basic infrastructure and services. The Kondhs’ persistent refusal to be connected by asphalt to the mainstream has, so far, kept resource extraction at arm’s length but not state surveillance. Although no official was willing to provide the exact number of Central Reserve Police Force battalions stationed in the region, encounters with heavily armed, khaki-clad policemen inside the forest, at railway stations and markets, and on the highway are frequent. Thus, while lacking the hubris of a road, jongol raasta are marked by military presence, rain and daily use. Even if it meant a detour or a longer walk, Kondhs avoided the shiny asphalt highway. There were too many cars and trucks; it was noisy and far too hot in the summer. Inside the forest, shade and water were always within reach. Ragtag groups would emerge as you ran into people from other villages en route to the same weekly market. Men walked ahead with axes on their shoulders. Young girls dallied, and picked flowers for their hair. Children, often accompanied by a village dog or two, brought up the rear. On the way back, women congregated at forks, comparing purchases [usually dried fish and kerosene, two products not available in the hills; hair accessories; candy] and eating lunches they had carefully packed at the end of their sari but not had the time to eat during the long day.

Drawing from a practice of mobility and temporal scope that is neither developmentalist nor future-oriented, the defining characteristics of roads in the modern era (Dalakoglou and Harvey 2012), jongol raasta produce an oppositional Kondh subjectivity. Roads connect people to places, to each other and to institutional apparatuses. However, Kondhs have historically experienced roads not as an apolitical form that bestows communication with the outside, but as violent incursions into their forests and lands. Kondh opposition to roads must therefore be understood not as a rejection of connectivity per se, but the terms of connection itself. Communications infrastructure in Niyamgiri cannot be divorced from the state’s twin projects of neoliberal extraction and cultural assimilation overseen by mounting surveillance. Kondhs question the linear premise of roads, the promise of unobstructed two-way traffic. The cost of bringing in modernity – mining, hospitals, schools and jobs – is in trees felled, polluted streams, and bodies disappeared in the hands of counter-insurgency forces. For now, Kondhs have chosen paths over roads.


[1] The block is an administrative unit in India, and several blocks constitute a district. Each regional state consists of several districts. There are thirty districts in Odisha state for example, and my fieldwork was conducted in Muniguda block, Rayagada district.

[2] The meriah, also spelled as meria, has been described and accounted for by ethnologists, missionaries, historians and anthropologists since the mid-19th century. Conducted annually in February, the meriah is a ritual sacrifice dedicated to the Sky God Bura Penu and Earth Goddess Darni Penu for a prosperous harvest. Early documentation suggests that the sacrificial victim was human, captured from the plains for this purpose. The meria continues to be practiced today with a buffalo.

[3] Spelt variously as “Kond”, “Kandha” and “Kondh” at different historical moments. I adhere to these distinctions.

[4] First identified in 1975-76, “Primitive Tribal Groups” were the “poorest of the poor” within the Scheduled Tribe category. The defining criteria for were pre-agricultural technologies, low literacy rate and declining/stagnant population. PTGs were renamed Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, or PVTGs, in 2006.

[5] Meaning “original inhabitants” in Sanskrit, the category adivasi was first invoked in the 1930s as a self-designation to differentiate between forest insiders and settler/moneylender ‘outsiders’, although historians disagree over whether all tribes were original inhabitants of the regions they reside in currently. Article 342 of the Indian constitution defines “Scheduled Tribes”, an administrative list of 645 communities, as populations possessing the following characteristics: primitive traits; distinctive culture; geographical isolation; backwardness and limited contact with the mainstream.

[6] Presidencies were administrative divisions in British-ruled India.

[7] Bera, S. 2013. “Life and Times of Lado Sikaka.” Down to Earth September 4. Accessed on March 14 2016

[8] Satpathy is alluding here to the Kondh practice of men climbing palm trees every morning and evening to collect its fermented sap, a milky alcoholic substance called salap in the Kui dialect.

Works Cited

Dalakoglou, Dimitris and Penny Harvey. 2012. “Roads and Anthropology: Ethnographic Perspectives on Time, Space and (Im)mobility,” Mobilities 7(4): 459 – 465

Larkin, Brian. 2013. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327 – 43

Madhuri Karak is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation tracks the aftermath of a successful social movement against corporate land grab to understand how colonial legacies of tribal (Kondh) identity, neoliberal extraction regimes and development are together shaping youth trajectories in the present moment of agrarian flux and counter-insurgency in central India’s forests.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure.