The Newsletter 85 Spring 2020

Connections and disconnections

Xiaolan Lin

UKNA ‘Ambivalent Infrastructures’ symposium
Dimapur, Nagaland, India
28-30 November 2019

Set in Dimapur in northeastern India, this international symposium looked at large-scale infrastructure developments and their functions, meanings, and wide-ranging implications for cities and their hinterlands. The symposium’s location was appropriately chosen; residents of this urban center who until recently moved around on unpaved roads will soon find themselves situated on one of Asia’s East-West economic corridors. Dimapur was formerly a tertiary city, very much on the periphery, but this is about to change as there are advanced plans to connect this region to the rest of India and Southeast Asia.

The symposium was an initiative of the IIAS’ Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA) and Ambedkar University Delhi’s Center for Community Knowledge (CCK) and the School of Global Affairs (SGA). It was co-organised with Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Architecture, New York University Shanghai, and the Kohima Institute, Nagaland, India.

The event started on an inauspicious note that highlighted the geopolitics and remaining ‘disconnections’ in Asia, which stand in stark contrast to the discourse of ‘connections’ emphasized by governments and development banks planning infrastructure networks in the region. Our Chinese colleagues Zhe Ren, Xiaoxuan Lu and Ye Liu were promptly deported from Nagaland for unclear political reasons (see the personal account below, entitled “An 8 hour stay in Nagaland” by Zhen Ren). Another Chinese colleague, Yifei Li from New York University Shanghai, was notified mid-travel about the ongoing developments and had to abort his itinerary, not making it further than Delhi. So, unfortunately, the symposium had to take place without them, robbing our Chinese colleagues of the opportunity to present their research in person, and depriving them and the other researchers of an intensive exchange of views and debates, which is, of course, one of the main purposes of conferences such as this one.

The meeting started with a guided excursion led by the Heritage Publishing House in Dimapur, who introduced all remaining participants to local places of interest, including a series of mushroom domed pillars, the Rajbari ruins. The excursion continued with visits to some of the major infrastructure projects around Dimapur. During the lunch break, the group visited the Bamboo Emporium, a reserch center and retail outlet for bamboo, which also offers bamboo workshops and a craft museum—a good place to learn about the various uses of bamboo in, among others, construction, furniture making, foodstuffs, and textiles.            

The next day, Dr Kekhrie Yhome of the Kohima Institute gave a very inspiring opening keynote speech about the historical ‘connectedness’ and ‘disconnectedness’ of the Northeast Indian states vis-à-vis the rest of India and Asia. This was followed by five panels on the following topics: Experiencing Infrastructure (organized by Ambedkar University Delhi Center for Community Knowledge); Transnational Approaches to Infrastructure (organized by Hong Kong University Faculty of Architecture); Rethinking Himalayan Infrastructures (organized by Ambedkar University Delhi School of Global Affairs); Infrastructure in the Age of Global China (organized by NYU Shanghai); and Infrastructure in the Future City (organized by IIAS). The papers of the absent Chinese participants were read out loud by the panel chairs.  

The symposium concluded with a roundtable session on Saturday, leading most of the participants to express their keen interest in publishing the papers and the keynote speech, preferably both in the form of journal articles and an edited book. It was agreed that an editorial committee would be assembled to work on the production of an introductory chapter, based on the papers, for an edited book.

Xiaolan Lin, Deputy Coordinator, Urban Knowledge Network Asia

More information about UKNA: Paul Rabé, UKNA Coordinator based at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands