This story emerges out of more than five years of research on road construction in the upper Himalayas. Dr. Anu Sabhlok (along with her students from IISER Mohali) has been following the journeys of seasonal migrant labourers employed by India's Border Roads Organisation in an attempt to understand the human dimensions of infrastructure development. Last year I joined the team as a photographer and research assistant.
Each year snow destroys the existing roads and each year new roads are planned as strategic defence infrastructure. The Casual Paid Labour (CPL) drill into the mountains to lay out dynamite, cut through rocks and cliffs often with hand tools and work amidst fumes of tar and coal. They live along the road and travel along with it as it moves into new territory. Their shelters are tent like structures made of plastic sheets tied down with rock or those of tin sheets made out of flattened tar barrels. The settlements are spread along the road away from villages and usually no more than 40 CPL live together as a group - thus they are isolated from the rest of the CPL workforce. The CPL workers are circular migrants who travel from Jharkhand, UP, Bihar and Nepal to work here in the summer. Their contracts with the BRO lasts for 179 days after which most of them return to their village or to lower altitudes to find work. This work brings together the political-economic and cultural aspects of migration, development and nationalism and shows how these discourses are intertwined in the lives of the migrant border-road builders.
This story is envisaged as an alternative travelogue - that visually narrates the journeys of the 90,000 or so CPL. Their life stories, seasonal journeys, meanings given to their temporary homes in the border areas, the dangers and perils they face, the attempts to create a sense of community in an alien landscape, lifestyles and cultural idioms carried over (and back) from their villages, the lives of the children who travel each year with their parents, the meals cooked......all of this and more forms the content of this travelogue. This alternative travelogue is seen as a medium to claim space for the road builders within the nation's history in which so far they have been invisible. Despite being instrumental for development and defense of the nation-state and the region, the migrant labour is conspicuous by its absence in any local, regional or national history.