Caught in a camel jam

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

To travel India's roads is to witness both the predicament and promise of this crowded country. There is a road that runs from Chandigarh to Ludhiana in the state of Punjab, where the population density is way above the national average of India.

To arrive at Ludhiana in the 5 o'clock traffic crush is to encounter a wall of people so impenetrable that the gap between riders and drivers seems toothbrush wide.

Tiers of bicycles move forward seven abreast. Cars hedged in on all sides inch forward single file in the only remaining room available for them -- an undefined strip that straddles the middle of the road. An overcrowded bus looks as though it's about to lie down on its side, as the weight of passengers that first jump and then cling to its side causes it to tilt alarmingly.

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There is another road. It runs from New Delhi, the modern capital of India, to Agra, the ancient capital of the Mogul Empire and site of the splendid Tai Mahal.

The road, a teeming river of humanity, runs through the state of Harvana into the state of Uttar Pradesh, power base of nearly all India's prime ministers, Indira Gandhi was returned victorious in the Uttar Pradesh consituency of Rae Bareli in the national election Jan. 5 and 6.

Both sides of this road are awash with people moved by every imaginable form of transportation and driving every conceivable beast of burden.

The road is so clogged with people that the longest time interval to elapse in which this writer saw not a single person along the highway during his 3 1/2 -hour, 157-mile journey was a bare 23 seconds.

Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, is teetering at the 100 million mark.

If UP, as it is called, were autonomous, it would be the world's seventh most populous nation, eclipsed only by China, the Soviet Union, the United STates, Japan, Indonesia, and Brazil.

The tide of humanity that rolls along this road is a microcosm of India's -- and the world's -- population problem. One-fifth of all mankind is Indian. Together India, with 652 million people, and China, with one billion, account for practically half the world's total population.

Although China is the larger of the two population giants, India's birthrate (34.3 per 1,000) is growing at a faster rate than that of China (12 per 1,000).

On the Delhi-Agra road, the population figures are translated into real-life terms.

The people flow toward you sometimes in ones and twos, but often in battalions. these pedestrian are overtaken by crowded buses, creaking wooden-wheeled bullock carts, high-stepping horses drawing carts, rickshaws, pedicabs, motor scooters, bicycles, and automobiles -- all ringing bells and honking horns.

It is not just a people-dominated scene.

The road and surrounding countryside is one mammoth barnyard of animals.

Haughty camels are hauling overwhelming loads of steel pipes or straw (the proverbial last straw that broke the camel's back carries a special ring of authenticity here in India). There are saddle-bagged donkeys and bleating sheep and leaf-nibbling goats and hairy pigs grunting their way through piles of rotting vegetables.

And everywhere, ambling through village stalls and obstructing the traffic and the villagers, are cows and buffaloes and more cows and more buffaloes.

It is estimated that there are about 250 million cows in India, many of them in a very unhealthy conditions, whose enormous food intake deprives million of Indians of the sustenance they might otherwise get.

But the cow is sacred in India, not to be harmed. Hindus venerate the cow (some even worship it as one of their gods) because it is viewed as a mother who feeds pure milk to the children.

The waste product has enormous economic significance. All along the road, women are collecting vast piles of dried cow dung. These cowpats are then moistened and mixed with straw, dried in the sun for three days, turned over, and dried another three days. They are used as an economical, slow burning fuel for cooking food. The dung is also kneaded into flat round cakes, which are then slapped onto the walls with an open palm to provide a sort of poor man's plaster.

Today, cow manure is being put to a far more sophisticated use: biogas. Although the technology is elementary, the dung is mixed with water, then sealed in a vat and allowed to ferment. the result is biogas, methane gas which can be ignited as a fuel. The waste product is used to enrich the soil.

India and China are now among the world's two largest exporters of biogas.

It is the combination of the primitive and progressive that intrigues the visitor to India.

There are villages, for instance, that are not centuries old but thousands of years old. Here women go down to ancient wells to draw water, much as the woman of Samaria must have done at Jacob's well some 2,000 years ago, as recorded by St. John. They balance beautiful gleaming brass pots without the help of a steadying hand.

At the same time and almost in the same place, there are factories turning out every type of consumer good and heavy industry products.

For all its problems and population load, India is one of the world's most self-sufficient countries. It has been able to check inflation far better than most countries for this striking reason: it imports precious little.

Says George Beier, an American who is senior economist of the World Bank in New Delhi, "India is almost completely developed. Name any goods, trivial, basic or luxury, and [the Indians] produce it, and what is more they use it."

This perhaps explains why India is categorized, not as a developing country nor as an emerging country, but as a developed developing country.

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