India Diary

November 28-29, 1999. Our delegation of journalists, winners of the annual Population Institute reporting awards, arrives in New Delhi in the middle of the night and drives through nearly deserted streets to our hotel. The 4 a.m. calm is deceptive: at first light, the streets fill with belching diesel taxis and two-stroke motorcycle-based rickshaws, colorfully painted but overloaded trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and, inevitably, cows. A cautionary billboard notes the previous day’s traffic fatalities in this city of 13 million—six.

New Delhi is not really a traveler’s destination, but it is a hub city, the gateway to the cool hill stations of the north. Daily trains run to Dehra Dun, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and from there it’s a quick, if hair-raising, taxi ride to Mussoorie, where the British Raj once summered in an effort to get away from the heat and disease of the plains. Once a heavily wooded natural paradise, teeming with wildlife (including jaguars and monkeys), Mussoorie has since seen heavy tourist development. Considerable deforestation, as in neighboring Nepal, has reduced its appeal as an eco-destination.

Environment and population are intimately connected in India, which has one billion people, adds 18 million new citizens per year, and is on a track to succeed China as the world’s most populous country by 2030. We visit the New Delhi offices of the United Nations Population Fund and U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID), where we’re told that the Indian government is revamping what had been a top-down, target-based approach to family planning. Primary responsibility for distribution of condoms and other birth control methods is borne by the government’s well-intentioned Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, aided by such non-governmental organizations as the Family Planning Association of India and Population Services International (which markets its own condoms). In such a huge country, it’s difficult to make major inroads. Male sterilization is culturally taboo, and condoms are not yet widely used for disease prevention, despite a 3.5 percent AIDS infection rate. India has as many as 35 million cases, the most in the world. But public education has had an effect. India’s fertility rate is 3.4, down from six in 1950.

November 30. We go to Agra, India’s tourist magnet because it’s home to the Taj Mahal, maybe the most famous building in the world. The Taj is beautiful, but unfortunately located in a heartbreakingly poor, devastatingly polluted modern city. Government orders have closed down a ring of smoky factories around the Taj, and the hordes of tourists now approach this 16th century wonder via battery-powered bus. But Agra air pollution remains as thick as London fog, and breathing it is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. A bright spot is a fleet of modern, lightweight human-powered rickshaws, an internationally-funded experiment in sustainable transportation.

December 2. The southern port city of Cochin, in communist-led Kerala state, may as well be in another country. Kerala is not yet a major tourist spot, but it should be—it’s a green and as-yet mostly unspoiled corner of India. Kerala is a matriarchal society, with an amazing 85 percent female literacy rate (it’s 10 percent in Rajasthan) and a near-replacement birth rate of 2.4.

We stay in a harborside hotel, with a sweeping view of Cochin’s backwaters, where fishermen still use nets introduced by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan. Cochin’s many islands offer refuge: We are intrigued by the colonial era (now government-run) Bolgatty Palace Hotel, on Bolgatty Island. Fishing villages dot the harbor, but many boats are idle: The government sold offshore fishing rights to Japanese factory trawlers, and the local catch has declined.

December 3-5. Once part of the old “hashish trail,” the former Portuguese colony of Goa is today not quite as swinging as in the days when all-night raves were held on the beaches. Coastal Goa is still lovely, though environmentally damaging and health-threatening open-cast mining for iron ore and manganese is practiced in the interior.

October to March is the time to visit Goa, as it rains near nonstop during the monsoons. Beachside guest houses and small hotels are very cheap. We eat a lunch of local favorite fish curry under a corrugated plastic roof that costs all of $2 (including a glass of the potent drink fenny, made from cashew nuts).

December 6-7. A farewell to India from old Bombay, now known as “Bollywood” because it hosts the largest film industry in the world. Bombay is home to 15 million, 80 percent of whom live in slums, and it has the battered feel of a city under siege. Modern businessmen with cell phones step over naked beggars without a backwards glance. It’s just part of the eternal contrast of this ever-fascinating country, a living laboratory for human population growth.