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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We arrive today at the end of one of the world's great rivers. NPR correspondent Philip Reeves has traveled the length of the Ganges. He stopped along the way to explore the India along its shores. And he's shown us two Indias - one enjoys the fruits of the country's booming economy; the other is a separate world where hundreds of millions remain locked in poverty. This is Philip's final report.

(Soundbite of ferry boat casting off)

PHILIP REEVES: A crowded ferry casts off its moorings and turns its bow towards the sea. We can already see our destination - a long, flat smudge on the horizon. This is a strip of land called Sagar Island. It's the last stop in our journey. The island is revered by Hindus as the place where the Ganges meets the sea. The river has arrived here after an odyssey that began high in the Himalayan Mountains, more than 1,500 miles away. Along the way she's provided physical sustenance to hundreds of millions living on the plains of north India. Time and again, she's had her waters siphoned off by thirsty cities, only to be replaced with their trash, sewage and industrial waste. Yet she's never lost her power to provide spiritual sustenance. Once a year, millions of Hindus descend on Sagar Island to worship the Ganges as she merges with the Bay of Bengal.

I've been traveling the length of the river for two weeks, stopping along the way to dip my toes into the India of 2007. The idea was to find out how Indians at every level feel about the way their country is changing, and about how the new India and the old India coexist.

As we sail across these flat, gray waters, I keep recalling an interview recorded just before we set out. It was with the Indian newspaper editor and author M.J. Akbar. India's economy is growing at more than nine percent at the last count; we all know that. But Akbar advised us to look more closely. Remember, he says, most of India's population is rural, and in rural India, the agricultural growth rate is only two-and-a-half percent.

Mr. M.J. AKBAR (Newspaper Editor; Author): The agriculture looks after 60, 70 percent of the people. And if 60, 70 percent of the people are growing at only 2.5 percent, that means 30 percent are growing at 17, 18 - God knows, whatever - percent. So what you are getting is growth with great imbalance; and with the imbalance in fact growing, the gap widening. And if you don't narrow this imbalance, I'm afraid that there will be enough anger, which will be heard in the sound of gunfire.

(Soundbite of many people speaking)

REEVES: We arrive at Sagar Island. It's 20 miles long and stands at the western end of the world's largest delta. The Ganges passes through this delta into the sea. The island has countless temples, but only one surfaced road. We planned to travel down it towards the island's southern tip. So far during our journey we've had occasional delays, but India's vast railway system, its riverboats and its automobiles haven't let us down. Today, our luck runs out.

(Soundbite of many people speaking)

REEVES: This car is officially declared dead. We're moving to another one. Eventually we get underway. India's infrastructure is often terrible, but this road is straight and smooth.

(Soundbite of traffic noises)

REEVES: We check into an ashram, where for a donation to the community, the priests take in foreign guests. It's supposed to be a retreat, but Hinduism is an exuberant religion, and even here it's hard to find peace.

(Soundbite of bells ringing and birds singing)

REEVES: It's dawn on our last day on the road. Amid the palm groves, the villages and tiny farms of Sagar Island are stirring into life. About now, on the long, wide beach where the Ganges meets the sea, Asura Bibi's working day begins.

(Soundbite of waves)

REEVES: She's to be found here, bent double, her sari billowing in the sea breeze. Using a small, hand-held fork, she's scraping the sand. Her arm moves back and forth in wide arcs. Hindu pilgrims throw coins into the water as a final donation to a river whom they revere as a goddess. Asura is trying to retrieve those coins. For her, the money has no spiritual significance. She's one of India's 150 million Muslims, most of whom still live among the lower rungs of society, often uneasily juxtaposed with India's Hindu majority.

Asura is small, weather-beaten, and 40 years old.

Ms. ASURA BIBI (Sagar Island, India): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: She explains she's been scouring the beach like this since she was a small girl. The money she finds will feed her family of three children, supplemented by her husband's occasional earnings as a day laborer. Someday, she says, she finds no coins at all.

Ms. BIBI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Other times, by working from dawn to dusk, she can rake in as much as 25 rupees. That's just over 50 cents. I ask her if she knows about the other India, the middle class India, which can afford cars and mobile phones and satellite TVs, and what she thinks about it.

Ms. BIBI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: What are we supposed to feel, she asks. Do you think we feel good watching other people getting richer? Asura belongs to old India, where eight out of 10 of the infant children are anemic, a figure that's actually got worse during the boom years; where just over half of the country's rural population has electricity; where getting sick means going broke. The hundreds of millions of Indians in that world are separate from the new India; the India that has a growing and vibrant media, thriving service, scientific and technological sectors, but which is not creating enough jobs.

Asura knows she'll never join the new India, yet as we talk, her mood brightens.

Ms. BIBI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: She says her children are in school. Maybe they'll cross the line between the two worlds, although she's not sure how. She stoops and begins scratching the sand again. Perhaps the Ganges will yield one more coin, one more meal, before it reaches the sea. Even here, clinging onto the edge of India, you find hope.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, beside the Ganges.

(Soundbite of waves washing into shore)

MONTAGNE: You can hear all the stories Philip sent from the river and read his latest Reporter's Notebook at npr.org.

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