Chokepoints: Circulation and Regulation in India’s Siliguri Corridor

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India's Chicken NeckKnown as the Chicken Neck, the Siliguri Corridor is a precarious sliver of territory connecting India’s ‘mainland’ to its Northeast. Flanked by international borders, the Corridor funnels a myriad of goods and bodies between Nepal, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and onward to Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

It is a zone of intense traffic and a critical chokepoint of South Asia. The immense volume of resources and people moving through the Corridor puts enormous strain on its infrastructure, not to mention those charged with securing and governing this unruly space. The Chicken Neck remains interwoven with smuggling, human trafficking, and clandestine activities – all of which can easily hide within its chaotic traffic. Traffic has accordingly become the operative condition of the Corridor’s (dys)function.

CURS Faculty Fellow Townsend Middleton, assistant professor of anthropology, spent the summer of 2016 working ethnographically with customs agents, anti-human traffickers, logistics experts and truck drivers in order to understand the cat-and-mouse interplays of circulation and regulation that shape life in this transit zone.

Chokepoint TrucksThis fieldwork by Middleton and his partners is part of an ongoing National Science Foundation-funded, CURS-supported, collaborative research project examining chokepoints around the world. Work sites include:

  • The Panama Canal: a century-old chokepoint of Atlantic-Pacific shipping and emerging global logistics hub. (with Ashley Carse, human and organizational development, Vanderbilt University)
  • India’s Siliguri Corridor (a.k.a. the “Chicken Neck”): a vital geopolitical connector of India and South Asia to China and Southeast Asia.
  • The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait: a critical shipping lane between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. (with Jatin Dua, anthropology, University of Michigan)
  • Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Refinery: a processing facility where oil from Amazonian oilfields is piped, refined, and exported for global maritime trade. (with CURS Faculty Fellow Gabriela Valdivia, geography, UNC-Chapel Hill)
  • Russia’s Roki Tunnel: a passageway of arms, bodies, and nuclear matter through the Caucasus (with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, geography, Indiana University)
  • The Sundarbans: a network of chokepoints straddling the India-Bangladesh border and a critical zone of climatological crisis. (with Jason Cons, public affairs, UT Austin)
Townsend Middleton

Townsend Middleton

As chokepoints, these are sites that constrict or choke the flow of information, bodies and goods due to their natural and anthropogenic qualities. They are, by definition, integral yet difficult to bypass. Importantly, what happens at these sites ripples far beyond their immediate surroundings. Indeed, as Middleton’s research is demonstrating, chokepoints are sites where forces of globalization are powerfully exposed.

“Our aim is understand the human dimensions,” explained Middleton. “We are all dependent on chokepoints. Turning ethnographic attention to these sites, we aim to develop new understandings of the global flows and frictions that define the world today.”