Packed in
Packed in

I listened with bemused interest as Mr Gopala explained to the passenger next to him that "London is such a beautiful city - so well ordered, such good discipline and my goodness it's so clean".

I shook my head and assumed the poor chap was a bit simple or at best confusing London with someplace else; then I landed in India for the first time, and understood exactly his point of view.

India can be quite a shock to the system if you're outside an organised tour group bubble. I'm used to packed commuter trains so I was pleased with myself for bagging a glass-free window seat on the early morning train from Bangalore to Mysore. It turns out that I hadn't ever been on a "packed" commuter train where eight people cram on to a six-seater bench, the corridors become sprawling dormitories and the luggage racks turn out to be the best seats in the house. But at 75¢ for the four-hour journey I could hardly complain.

Compared with the northern mega-cities, the southern city of Mysore is India-lite. I've been accosted by more beggars in London's West End than in Mysore, though the trinket touts will get you at every tourist hot spot.

It's the first country where I felt too timid to get behind the wheel and explore for myself.

The roads have all the order and discipline of a combined stock car and monster truck race after you've added 50 three-wheeled taxis, as many motorbikes as want to join in, several ox carts, random grazing cattle - and there's a million-dollar prize for the first to do 10 laps.

It's hard to understand why Indians don't rule the stock car circuit.

It was with considerable relief that I travelled south through Bandipur National Park to the Nilgiri Hills straddling the States of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

It's a stunningly beautiful region and the lush landscape gives Ireland a good run for more shades of green - rolling tea estates, coffee plantations, rice, cotton, sugar cane, black pepper vines and a host of spices previously only seen in jars.

I joined a conservation volunteer project run by the charity Raleigh International that is introducing eco-technology to help reduce the impact of India's huge population on wildlife and the environment.

With more than 1.2 billion people, and expanding by the entire Australian population every year, India is crowded. Beyond the national parks every hectare of land has some human stamp on it. The environmental impact of this is huge so the conservation of India's flagship species like tiger and elephant is impossible without addressing the wider impact of the growing population.

Although there are plenty of volunteer organisations around they're not all engaged in conservation activities that make a real difference. Raleigh has really thought this through and is tackling core issues using simple eco-technology solutions that reduce pressure on the environment and create sustainable rural livelihoods.

Even though Indian cities are vast, 70 per cent of the population lives in rural villages. Of course, no amount of volunteer activity is going to change the national environment but Raleigh is working in partnership with local NGOs such as The Centre for Tribal and Rural Development, to set up model villages - self-sustainable communities that help preserve forests by reducing villagers' dependence on forests for wood and food.

Bio-gas installations are at the heart of this program and though low-tech they require a considerable infrastructure and when completed provide cooking gas for a family of five.

As well as preserving the forest they also reduce forest pollution and produce organic fertiliser, enriching crop soil and reducing the need for artificial fertilisers.

The system could be used in any rural setting and at its core is a six-foot (183cm) diameter sewage digester of reinforced concrete that is buried in the ground and fed from a sewage- collecting trough.

The installation requires a massive amount of earth moving, all by hand, though the primary sphere is cast in-situ by a local mason. The bulk of the manure comes from cow dung so a cattle shed also has to be built where the dung is easily collected and fed into the system. Each completed installation comes with two adult cows and a calf, which provides sufficient fuel for four hours cooking per day and, of course, fresh milk.

Gas is fed directly into the kitchen and villagers told me they saved about 8kg of wood per day; that's 240kg per month or 2880kg per year. This is a sizeable tree - for just one family.

Raleigh provides all the materials and hardware, which are beyond the financial resources of rural villagers. Volunteers provide the labour but villagers often help with the construction work and making bricks when they are not away working on tea plantations.

With no mains services tribal villages use the forest as their toilet so additional community projects include the construction of eco-sanitation units that prevent pollution and add to the organic fertiliser for vegetable plots. An additional environmental project is solar-powered fencing coupled with an elephant-proof trench.

Elephants and humans are increasingly in competition for limited land resources, especially in the vicinity of national parks.

Effective corridors don't exist between forest areas so elephants and wild boars increasingly range further afield for food and the easiest pickings are farmers' fields.

Villagers living on the outskirts of national parks are routinely killed trying to deter elephants and elephants are maimed and killed by villagers. Although it's not a long-term solution, until there is more reafforestation and effective corridors between forest habitats conflict remains a serious issue.

To an outsider it seems obvious that India's real problem is its growing population. So what's happened to India's family planning programs?

Chennai community worker Meera Sundararajan surprised me by saying that family planning is one of India's great success stories. The growing population is no longer because of new births but because of improvements in health care. People are living longer; India now has an ageing population, so even success stories bring their own problems.

· Peter Lynch travelled to India with Raleigh International on its eco-technology project. See raleighinternational.org/ countries/india.

The West Australian

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