Unsecured Volumes: Prognostic Politics and Infrastructural Futures in Nepal

Austin Lord

In contemporary Nepal, debates about possible futures are shaped by a shifting gamut of claims about future resources and connections, creating political economies of anticipation where “the present is governed, at almost every scale, as if the future is what matters most” (Adams et al 2009: 248). Drawing from two ongoing research projects – the first focused on patterns of popular investment in the hydropower sector (Lord 2016; Lord 2018; Lord & Rest in press) and the second on the multi-scalar politics that shape dreams of a “handshake across the Himalaya” (Murton et al 2016) in the age of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (Murton & Lord in press) – this paper analyzes the prognostic politics (Mathews & Barnes 2016; Ferry 2016) that give shape to diverse infrastructural imaginaries in Nepal.

Tacking between a variety of field sites and discursive arenas, I analyse the ways that differently situated Nepalis articulate the “promise of infrastructure” (Anand et al 2018) in the conditional, subjunctive, future, or future perfect tense—describing visions of how things will be, could be, should be, or will have been, if only _____. In each case, I also foreground the volumetric politics that give material shape patterns of infrastructural connection and ambition. Building from previous analyses of the ways that nation-states attempt to create territory by “securing volumes” (Elden 2013; Bridge 2013; Billé et al 2017) I show how different attempts to enact and claim infrastructural futures are all essentially concerned with questions of volumetric sovereignty (Billé et al 2019). Looking at the different ways that states, publics, and private sector actors assert a variety of four-dimensional claims (claims on volumes over and in time), I ask: In whose name are these infrastructural futures summoned? Who can claim the uncertain future volumes?

In the first part of the paper, I analyse the recently completed initial public offering (IPO) of shares for the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Company Ltd. and the discursive ascendance of the slogan “Nepalko Paani, Janatako Lagaani.” In the second part of the paper, I consider debates over Chinese infrastructural investment and Chinese-facilitated hydropower development in Nepal, focusing on the Budhi Gandaki Hydropower Project and other hydropower projects included in the Government of Nepal’s Belt and Road proposal. I argue that these developments reflect two parallel processes of securitization: first, an effort to secure Nepal’s hydrologic volumes through dam construction, and secondly an attempt to financially securitize Nepal’s water by translating it into asset that Nepal’s citizens can invest in. Financial modalities like the shareholder model of hydropower development, state-sponsored goals like “10,000 megawatts in 10 years”, and pending BRI contracts are not simply four-dimensional claims, they are future-oriented statements about the ways that state-society relations should be configured.

Finally, I consider the contingency of present and future infrastructural claims, foregrounding the socio-political and environmental reasons why these volumes are inherently unsecured. In the shifting landscapes of the Himalayan region, environmental futures are increasingly uncertain and few volumes are ever truly secure for long.

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