By the time our car bumped across the trackless, dusty plain and reached the sun-baked mud walls of Alibrahmin, all the men had disappeared.

"They're not home," said one young woman, suspicious, curious, but stubbornly not allowing herself to glance up from the dung cakes she was shaping for cooking fuel. "Gone to the fields," she added as an afterthought. Gone to the market," muttered another. "We don't know when they'll return. Too long to wait."

But we waited, and after 20 minutes or so they started drifting out of the tiny houses. Of the 175 men in this village, more than 100 had been forcibly sterilized during the 1975-77 state of emergency imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It will be a long time before they lose their fear of strangers.

It will be perhaps even longer before villagers anywhere in northern India will listen with anything other than contempt to reasoned arguments by family planners.

Family plannings.

Family planning, sterilization, contraception - all of these have become dirty words in post emergency India. Under the new government, even the Ministry of health and Family Planning has been changed to Health and Family Welfare.

By forcibly sterilizing millions of men during the 20-month emergency, the government of former Prime Minister Indria Gandhi may made some very limited inroads on the birthrate, but it probably set back by a generation all efforts to contain the exploding population of India.

Population, in the view of virtually all Indian and Western development specialists, is at once the lock and the key to India's future: If population growth is limited, the country has a chance a slim one, to progress. If not, no one knows exactly what to expect.

The outlook is terrifying. Today there are 620 million people in India. Next year there will roughly 13 million babies are adults, there will be a billion people in this country, less than half the size of the continental United States. Nothing else not food, education, health care or jobs, can possibly keep pace.

"Now population by itself is not a problem," said Prime Minister Morarji Desai. "If means of production are supplied to every person, then population will be an asset because man produces much more than he requires. And therefore, population would be no problem.

"England is far more densely populated and so is Japan. And yet they are prosperous. Most of the countries except the United States and Soviet Russia, which have a very large area, are populated far more densely. But, for us it is a problem because prosperity and means of production are not available for everybody."

There is universal recognition of the problem, but almost no consensus on what should constitute an effective family planning program. Even before the Gandhi government sent armed police into villages like Alibrahmin, sweeping away the men in the dead of night, the message was not getting through.

A villager here said that before the emergency, no one he knew praticed any form of family planning. Not only that, he said in reply to a question, but "we'd never even heard what condoms or those other devices were." The village is less than 70 miles from New Delhi.

The new government has pledged to eliminate any form of coereion or inducement. Yet, the prospects are gloomier than ever.

"We'll educate the people," Health and Family Welfare Minister Raj Narain said the other day. "We'll teach them self-denial. We'll teach them how to lead a normal sex life and avoid conception. In our ancient book there's much written about when to have sex and produce children. And the time limit is explained on how to avoid having children, too. We'll teach them yogic methods."

Narain's expertise grew out of reading during his latest stint in jail as a political prisoner. When he was released in time to campaign against Gandhi, he put his lessons to work. "I told the people that small families were part of our religious culture," he recalled. "I told them that Ram had two sons and Krishna just one, that Mohammed had one daughter and that she had two sons. And the crowds would always respond by nodding their heads in agreement and telling each other, he's right."

While Narain's folksy approach fits generally into the government's roughly sketched plans for returning India to its peasant roots, some Western experts are skeptical that there can be anything like a voluntary solution to the crisis, especially under the constraints created by the emergency.

"Compulsory sterilization was an obscenity," said a West European economist. "But I'm afraid, I'm convinced that there's no way to cope with the population problem of this country if birth control is not made compulsory. There should at least be distinctives against having more than two children."

But Prime Minister Desai and Narain, who became a folk hero after using the sterilization issue to defeat Gandhi for the parliamentary seat representing Rae Bareli district, know they have no choice. To employ any family planning program that even faintly smacks of coercion would be political suicide. It was this issue, far more than any other, that drew Desai's People's Party into power in the slip-stream of revulsion against Gandhi.

Narain said that more than 10.5 million people were sterilized during the emergency and that 207 men died following vasectomies.The government is offering the equivalent of $580 to men who want to undergo recanalization surgery to restore reproductive capacity by reopening tubes closed off by vasectomy.

An official investigation is under way into the activities of the former prime minister's younger son, Sanjay Gandhi. Compulsory sterilization was Sanjay Gandhi's pet project.

"Those found guilty will be punished," Narian said, "no matter who they are or who they were .

In a recent interview. Desai said that " population control is a must and we have got to tackle it efficiently because whatever development we do, if it is eaten up by the population rise, then people do not get a fair deal at all. Therefore it is a problem which must be tackled with the highest priority."

When pressed though both Desai and Narain indicated that the government's plans were characterized by the same sort of vagueness that marked India's pre-emergency family planning policies. Furthermore, the national budget for family planning this year, at just over $100 million, is $1 million lower than last year's.

"That's because we're putting more emphasis on health care and welfare." Narain explained.

But even the route to improved health ahd welfare, as long as it is even barely tinged with family planning, is fraught with danger. In Uttawar, the village next to Alibrahmin, a group of forcible sterilized men bitterly dismissed the basic contention that smaller families are healthier families.

"It is God who provides us with children and it is God who provides us with the ability to care for them,"said a young father named Bashin. "I do not subscribe to the false theory that fewere children means better care."

Bashir, who was sterilized in December after he and his wife had their third child, said he had no doubt that as a subsistence farmer with three acres of land he could adequately care for "six or seven little ones."

As he spoke to a visitor, Bashir gently cradled his three-year-old son. The boy with the auburn-tinged hair and protruding belly of malnourishment, stared silently up at his father.

"Each family must have at least six children." Bashir explained. "We're landowners and if we can't be sure of surviving heirs, what will happen to our land when we die? And what will happen to us in our old age?"

Indian peasants have long looked on large families as the only faint assurance of some sort of social security. Certainly, no government has even remotely begun to replace the system with an institutionalized welfare program.

As an answer, Health Minister Narain said. "We'll have to make it clear that if you have large numbers of children, then your children will be weaker in their old age than you because they'll be sick. They'll become a burden instead of a help."

Narain nurtures a hope that through his low-key approach and by severing an identification with the Gandhi government's tactics, he will be able to drive the message home. The fury and frustration in villages like Alibrahmin and Uttawar suggest otherwise.

This anger had touched some of the big-city elite, as well.

"Before the emergency. I used to think that the peasants were so steeped in ignorance and superstitution that something drastic had to be done," a Bombay architect said.

But, she continued, she and her husband, a labor union official, "now believe that nothing, could be worth the ple. If they want to have 10 children each, then I believe it's their business and their right. And I'm prepared to fight for them."

This view is probably an extreme. A more moderated attitude in the drawing rooms of Bombay and New Delhi is that, in time, the peasants' bitterness will cool. But few, if any, of those who hold out this hope have gone to the villages. NOne of them, no matter how many children they have, was forcibly sterilized.

The terror tactics were limited to the poor mainly in the villages, and a seemingly disproportionate number of them were Moslems. India's Moslems, who represent about 10 per cent of the population, have traditionally seen the need to have large families as a means of protecting themselves against the Hindu majority.

Uttawar is a wholly Moslem village, all 7,000 of its people. It was one of the worst-hit by the compulsory sterilizaton campaign. As a group of two dozen men squatted in front of the village's only shop, brushing away files and wiping off sweat, this was the story they told:

The drive to sterilize the men of Uttawar began with a certain degree of subtlety. Last September, gangs of laborers appeared without warning in the dirt lanes of the village and began digging up plots of land in front of the mud block houses.

The explanation, when the villagers finally managed to squeeze one out of an armed policeman guarding the workers, was that the lanes were too narrow and the Haryana state government had issued orders that such villages should be "beautified" by having their lanes widened.

After a few days of diggin , the workers left as suddenly as they had appeared. Their work was never finished. A short while later, someone noticed that the Koran, the Islamic holy book, kept in the tiny, whitewashed Mosque was gone.

"The police stole it," one of the sweating men claimed. "They took it to insult us and our religion - and to frighten us. But we still didn't know what was coming."

Soon, the village's electricity supply was cut off. A small party of local officials and police came and told the villagers that the electricity would be turned on again if the men "volunteered" for vasectomies. None went.

Then, in November, at about 3 o'clock one morning, the village was suddenly awakened by shouting voices amplified over portable loudspeakers: "We are the police.The village is surrounded. We have guns. We have gasoline. Do not try to run. We will shoot you and burn the village down. All men and boys come out quietly."

They were herded onto trucks and buses. The grown men were taken to a temporary, outdoor vasectomy clinic. The teenagers were taken to a jail where more than 100 of them were imprisoned for a month. They were told only that they were being held for "investigation."

The men who had been sterilized were given slips of paper that stated that they had "hereby been sterilized voluntarily in the civil hospital." They were warned that if they lost the certificates, they would be "sterilized again."

One man died a few weeks after the operation. Others developed infections. Five months later, many still complained that they had been "weakened" by the operations and could not work well.

A physician in New Delhi said there was no reason that a vasectomy should "weaken" a man.

"But," he explained, "to many of these people, sterilization is the same as castration, The effect is psychological."

Psychological or physiological, the story is told throughout northern India and even in the south where the compulsory sterilization program never reached.

Perhaps the tales are exaggerated, but they are widely believed. And they are particularly accepted by the masses of Indians who had always been suspicious of any attempts to tamper with their God-given right to bear as many children as they wanted.