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Cross-country trek through the Indian heartland

PETER CAVE: For most Australians, India conjures up images of either romance or poverty. The splendour of the former maharajas and the grinding poverty of the majority remains striking contrast in the world's second most populous country. In this report, we join Christopher Kremmer, our India correspondent, for a cross-country trek through the Indian heartland, including a visit to a controversial Australian aid project in the country's most lawless state.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: You find celebrities in the most out of the way places in India. On the India Airlines internal flight from Delhi to Ranchi in Bihar state, there was no hint of it. But I left Ranchi Airport to be confronted by a ceremonial welcome organised by members of Hinduism's lower castes for an MP of the Janata Dal party which, these days, portrays itself as the champion of the oppressed. Women in traditional dress linked arms in dance as a small, rather non-descript political functionary graciously allowed himself to be garlanded with flowers. India's politicians swap allegiances like models changing clothes, but ordinary Indians can still be persuaded by a few rupees or out of their own naivety to turn out for anyone with a party endorsement.

Ranchi, a former hill station where the British sought relief from the heat of Bihar is a cauldron of regional politics. Now a dirty, bustling city, it's the home of India's coalmining industry and an ongoing agitation by tribal people for their own state within the Indian union. It's also the city closest to Australia's largest overseas aid project, the Piparwar open-cut coalmine, which I had come to see. A handful of Australian engineers are showing their Indian counterparts how to mechanise coalmining to improve efficiency in the north Karanpura Valley. I visited Biren Dikshit a director of India's national coal company at his residence, a British period bungalow on the outskirts of Ranchi, where he told me Piparwar would be a model for India's coal industry.

DIKSHID (?): This achievement of high productivity .... output from .... .... for future training of the mines.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Listening to Mr Dikshid, it was difficult not to be distracted by multiple mosquitoes and by his bright red mouth and gums inflamed by paan, the betel nut and tobacco mixture chewed by millions of Indians. As well as many mouths, paan stains the floors and walls of most government offices and other public places as jets of blood-coloured liquid are everywhere spat out. The expectorant gives a jaded look to many colonial period buildings, making you wonder sometimes what will remain when the architectural heritage of independent India is frittered away.

But all such gloomy thoughts subsided as I hit the road north from Ranchi through the tribal areas of central Bihar. It's harvest time, and women in saris can be seen bent over in the fields cutting tufts of dry paddy rice as the men use ploughs drawn by cows and bullocks to prepare the soil for the next planting. The countryside is green, despite a poor monsoon, and there's still some forests, an increasing rarity in over-populated India. Environmentalists say the Australian coal project at nearby Piparwar threatens to destroy this traditional way of life. Vast areas of agricultural land will be dug up and tribal people will be displaced, with little chance of adequate compensation or a sustainable alternative way of life. And because the new mines will be mechanised, there's not even much chance of a job. Raghuvir Tiwari is a leader of the agitation against the Australian aid project.

RAGHUVIR TIWARI: The ... project is degrading of environment. It is taking away all the forests, the forests are getting uprooted. The tribal people, they are getting evicted from their houses and they're not getting any jobs because of the machines. And that is the reason why we are opposing the project.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Even in the face of what Mr Tiwari says have been threats to bulldoze houses, there's growing resistance to land reclamation for the $500 million coal mine. Mike Ryan, the General Manager of the Australian company, White Industries, which is developing the mine, admits the project is running behind schedule.

MIKE RYAN: A number of areas have moved slower than we expected. Firstly, there have been some land issues, both forestry and local land issues. We've had very slow transportation of equipment from the port. Once it reached the port the equipment has been slow in arriving at the site. They're the main areas, I think, at the moment.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Mike Ryan is an archetypal barrel-chested Australian miner, but he looks weary after more than two years pioneering a new way of doing things in a country which is suspicious towards change and sometimes hostile to foreigners. Whilst returning to the futuristic Australian colony one night several months ago, the car in which he was travelling ran over and killed a guard. Opponents of Piparwar have seized on the case and have asked the Australian High Commission in New Delhi to support their campaign for half a million rupees in compensation for the guard's widow. Mike Ryan feels the campaign against him is politically motivated.

MIKE RYAN: I am aware of a pamphlet that was produced by an individual that claimed that I was the driver, but that's completely without basis. Within two minutes of the accident happening the police were there and I discussed the matter with the police at that time, and subsequently, and at no stage has anyone indicated that I was at fault, or in the driving seat in fact.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: A measure of just how dirty politics and business can be in the wilds of Bihar can be found in a Jesuit mission from which, for decades, priests, including some Australians, have worked among the tribal people. Not for these missionaries the opulence of Rome; their crucifixes are fashioned from the branches of trees tied together, and they live without electricity. But what they've been living with in recent months are visits from officials of Coal India Limited, telling them in none too subtle terms, not to get involved in the campaign against Piparwar. White Industries denies knowledge of such bullying tactics, but the divide between the company and its opponents, like anthropologist Balvir Maan, who claims ancient rock art sites are threatened by the mine, is becoming as deep as the cavernous pit at Piparwar.

BALVIR MAAN: I think that to risk all this just because somebody wants to make a fast buck on coal, it's not fair, it's not worth it. My message to the Australian politicians is that they are not cleaning up the coal industry by helping us to streamline our production methods, because India's great problem today is the conversion of coal into some electric energy. The conversion factor is 5 per cent. If Australia wants to help India, tell it to help India in the actual electricity production methods of coal.

I have one more message. The North Kurumpurah Valley is the richest rice land of South Bihar. Don't destroy it. You wouldn't do it anywhere else. And don't destroy our heritage, it belongs to mining ???]. You wouldn't take your machines near Stonehenge; don't bring them to ...

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: From an environmental conflict to a religious one. For the next leg of my journey I was to travel by road, specifically in one of the overloaded, mobile coffins which passes for a public bus. The ticket seller, hidden behind an impossibly small hole in the wall of Hazaribagh bus station, advised that the next conveyance was not due for several hours, so I opted for a smaller, private bus, known locally as the maxi-taxi. These have no fixed timetable, but depart when full, and for the operators that means very full. My effort to speed our departure by purchasing half a dozen tickets - 20 cents each for a four-hour journey - were fruitless, as touts crammed more and more passengers into the minibus. When eventually my impatience exploded in a hail of Hindi expletives, the driver finally appeared and we got under way.

An occupational hazard of working in India is the threat of suffering a stroke brought on by temper tantrums, but to my embarrassed surprise, I found myself being congratulated by my fellow passengers for breaking the log jam. For the long-suffering Biharis, it was a moment of relief from the unremitting exploitation, even by bus owners, which is their lot.

My destination was the birthplace of Buddhism, Buddh Gaya, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment through meditation long before the birth of Christ. An ancient temple which stands there is in dispute with some Buddhists demanding that control of the site be transferred from a committee on which Hindus, who worship Buddha as the tenth incarnation of their god, Vishnu, have a nominal majority. Such disputes are increasingly common in India, where the rise of Hindu nationalism has polarised spiritual allegiances and diluted the country's historical commitment to tolerance.

More immediate, however, was the confrontation between our bus driver and all other vehicles on the road, which amounted to the threat of an imminent head-on collision with every oncoming truck, car and bicycle, avoided only by a whisker and at the last moment. Sixty thousand people died in road accidents in the country last year. But while India may be losing its tolerance of diversity, its fatalism is as strong as ever and the spectacular carnage evident all around hardly excited a murmur from my fellow travellers, most of whom believe that should a calamity happen, they would be reborn anyway.

At the turnoff to Buddh Gaya, I disembarked and caught a horse-drawn buggy which took me rather slowly - the horse had seen better days - straight to the revered temple. Inside Buddhists from around the world - Japanese, Thais and Sri Lankans among them - worshipped in shifts, according to their differing ritual. Inside the dark, crowded inner sanctum, the atmosphere was claustrophobic, under the eye of a large Buddha which seemed to be made of gold papier-mache. Outside, in the shade of the huge bodi (?) tree the faithful, including several young Westerners, sat in silence trying to meditate amid boisterous children, dogs and tour guides. You have to pay to take a camera inside the temple, but three men carrying rifles walked in unchallenged - bodyguards to another inevitable VIP.

That aside, there was little or no sign of violent conflict. In a small room in the maze of offices opposite, I found Dwarko Soondirani, Secretary of the Temple Management Committee, who told me the battle for Buddh Gaya was a media beat-up.

DWARKO SOONDIRANI: They are worshipping Buddha, and even in Buddhist there are many countries, there are different kind of worship. The same as Hindu worship also. There is no reason to complain like this. Let everybody worship. Bogar and Lastra(?), ten, fifteen years, has become a centre where especially Westerners come for meditation. And it is said that there are good vibrations in the temple, and so people get good meditation here. So many people come in the last ten, fifteen years, so it has become an international place, no doubt about it.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: The agitation at Buddh Gaya is being led by a small group who converted from Hinduism because they felt its rigid caste system denied them the opportunity to improve their lives. Many Hindus convert to Christianity for the same reason. Neo-Buddhists see Hindu worship of Buddha as a plot to swallow the religion, as Hinduism swallowed the Jains, and to some extent the Sikhs. With India's three million Buddhists outnumbered by 700 million Hindus, the policy of confrontation seems slightly ambitious. But, with Hindu fundamentals already locked in a, at times, bloody conflict with Moslems over another temple at Ayodhya, the new Buddhists, led by a Japanese-born monk, may hope to win by opening a second front on India's religious battlefield.

It being the cool season, the only hotel at Buddh Gaya, and all the religious guest houses, were full. Dropping the name of Madhav Rao Scindia, India's Tourism Minister, cut little ice with the manager of the Government hotel, so I decided to head for the nearby city of Gaya, along a road renowned for bandits, especially after dark. A full moon rose as I set out on the 15 kilometre journey in a motorised rickshaw - a good omen I thought, until the engine spluttered and died. I left the driver yanking hopelessly at the ignition lever in the dark, and began walking towards Gaya when, by one of those miracles of fate that happen when you're travelling, a bicycle rickshaw with a tinkling bell approached, and agreed to take me the remaining 10 kilometres.

As this slight young man with tendons like knotted ropes sweated and heaved us forward, I watched for decoys(?) and robbers who might emerge from the silent, moonlit bushes. The crowded squalor and gaudy lights of an Indian town were never so welcomed as when we reached the outskirts of Gaya, and I paid my hero, the rickshaw rider, eight times the agreed fare, or about $2, out of relief and gratitude.

Gaya railway station soon dampened my euphoria. There were no vacancies in its retiring rooms and no quota of reserve tickets for any train to Varanasi. The entrance and platform of the station were crammed with whole families, mainly villagers, sleeping as they waited for their train. With no reservation, it was going to be a matter of trial and error - first finding the conductor of each train as it arrived at the chaotic station, and then asking for a seat. Even getting a ticket was an ordeal, as I went from counter to unattended counter, most of which would only sell tickets to a specific destination at a particular time of day, except on religious holidays, of which there are many in India.

Luckily, this wasn't one, and with a ticket to Mogul Sahri(??), near Varanasi firmly in my hand, I checked into the sort of hotel you find near railway stations, to get some sleep before trying the early morning train. I slept with one eye open, less the scuffling sound of the rats in my room became a matter of immediate peril, but instead got eaten by mosquitoes which looked fat and satisfied when I got up to catch the train. Small things can seem like godsends in India, and the nod of the train conductor when I asked if he had a sleeper, was one. The carriage, lined on both sides by curtained bunks, had a comfortable 1930s feel about it, and I slept so soundly that I almost missed my stop. From Mogul Sahri I took a taxi across the bridge over the Ganges to what some claim is the world's oldest inhabited city, Benares, these days known as Varanasi.

For the Hindus, to die at Varanasi is to be certain of attaining paradise. In their thousands, they come every day to bathe in the Ganges, or to consign loved ones to the funeral pyres which dot the river bank. A special cast is responsible for the cremations. They split logs using a sledge hammer and spike and weigh the wood for each pyre. It takes about three hours for a human body to burn completely, and few can afford scarce wood at inflated prices, so most bodies are only partially burnt and then tossed into the river, along with the carcasses of animals which are not burnt at all. Not surprisingly, the Ganges at Varanasi has a pollution problem. Yet for the Hindus, Ganga water remains pure.

UNIDENTIFIED: It is holy water. It is holy water.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: They say that the water is, become dirty. Do you think so?

UNIDENTIFIED: No dirty.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Would you drink this water?

UNIDENTIFIED: Some people drink, some people bath.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Taking a river boat across the Ganges in the dry season when the water level is low starkly reveals that all is not well. I passed a human skeleton being picked at by a crow as it floated downstream in a macabre breast stroke towards the Bay of Bengal. And on the muddy banks packs of half-wild dogs tore at human remains. Professor V.B. Misra, the mahant(?) of one of Benares main temples, and a lecturer in Civil Engineering at Benares Hindu University, still takes his morning dip in the Ganges, but with reservations.

PROFESSOR MISRA: See the dead bodies floating around. It's a very disturbing sight, and even people who have lifetime relationship with Ganga like me, they get disturbed and they feel shaky to take holy dip in the river when a dead body is passing just by the side of the place where they are taking holy dip every day.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: At a farm at nearby Sainath, the Indian Government is breeding carnivorous turtles to eat the remains polluting the river.

If I go inside this cage with these big turtles, will they attack me?

UNIDENTIFIED: No dangerous.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: And have they got sharp teeth? Do they have sharp teeth?

UNIDENTIFIED: No, hard cartilage.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Cartilage?

UNIDENTIFIED: Hard cartilage.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Okay. Now.

UNIDENTIFIED: This is a female turtle.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: It's a female?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yes.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Well, it's an ugly looking critter, I've got to say that. It's looking up at us. It's got a head about the size of, well, a golf club, and an awful double-barrelled nose; a green head with large black stripes going back, and a pair of very piercing eyes. And, as you say, when it opens its mouth, no sharp teeth but some pretty mean-looking cartilage gums with which it disposes of its victim, hopefully dead.

Twenty-four thousand have been hatched in the past five years, but few people have ever seen one in the river. V.B. Misra says the turtle plant focuses on only a small part of the pollution, and the main problem of untreated sewage flowing into the river remains.

PROFESSOR MISRA: Scientifically speaking, the contribution of these dead bodies to the pollution load of the ... is very small. The Government is out to grow these natural scavengers, the turtles. It looks like a very attractive thing to the modern society and to many, many people in the world. But it's not effective. The turtle, the flesh-eating turtles, have been put in Ganga in thousands, and I have not seen them any time active. There is a big reckless urbanisation going on on the upstream of Benares, because of the construction of the new road bridge. People are making houses in the flood plain of Ganga. And all this, there is no proper planning. All the houses start discharging sewerage into the River Ganges on the upstream of Benares. What will happen? We have been telling continuously that if you want to perfectly ensure that the river is clean where thousands and thousands of people take holy dip every day, then you have to take care of this urbanisation. This riverfront which is existing on the upstream of Benares and which is going to receive a lot of waste water and it will flow into Ganga in the upstream of Benares. Such things we have pointed out, but I would say important things have not been considered in the planning and so the Ganga action plan has not been able to fulfil its objectives.

CHRISTOPHER KREMMER: Varanasi is nothing if not different, and Western tourists, backpacker and 5-star, flock there every year. But, unlike the Hindus, the Westerners do not want to die in Varanasi; they proceed to the Taj Mahal and other tourist attractions. But it's not always that easy. My flight back to Delhi was first delayed by six hours, and then cancelled. The runway lighting system had failed, and the pilot refused to take off guided by the lanterns which airport staff had placed along the tarmac. The Indian Airlines Manager was the calm eye of a storm of exasperation, bordering on panic, as he informed distraught guides and tourists that there was not a single hotel room to be had in Varanasi that night. He was lying of course - part of an elaborate ruse to keep the airport besieged and increase pressure on the pilot to take off. But the pilot, a no-nonsense young woman, was unimpressed and left for the city in an airline coach soon after, as did I. When I returned the next morning, the tour group members were still there, having obviously slept in their clothes in the torturous plastic seats of the terminal. But, when the plane finally took off, some of them actually cheered, having learned that in India, the smallest problem always seems like a crisis; the largest problem can always be ignored; the greatest indignity can always be tolerated, and the smallest stroke of kindness or good fortune always seems like salvation itself.

PETER CAVE: Christopher Kremmer bringing to a close the last World today for this year.