At a roadside weighing station just outside this dusty, sun-scorched coal-mining city in northeast India, tough-looking goondas carrying country-made guns openly collect a protection "tax" from the drivers of the more than 3,000 trucks that leave the collieries every day while officials look on dispassionately.

At a nearby road junction where 30,000 tons of coal is sold daily to out-of-state haulers, gangland strongmen stand by their motorcycles waiting to collect commissions as rattletrap trucks are filled by syndicate-contracted front-loaders.

Later, bands of enforcers begin their rounds of the shops in town, collecting the week's protection dues, and then hang around the entrances to the mines to collect on high-interest loans made to laborers.

It is business as usual in the mean streets of Dhanbad, which has acquired the reputation as the most lawless city in India and a dubious model of the feudal-like and backward state of Bihar, where corruption is endemic and is regarded as barely worthy of notice by an increasingly cynical population of 80 million people.

Some sociologists say that Dhanbad is a mirror image of the breakdown of social order in Bihar, once the cradle of enlightened religious thought, where Buddhism and the Jain religion trace their origins. In turn, they say, Bihar merely reflects the frenetic quest for power and wealth that has characterized much of India's history since it freed itself from colonialism in 1947.

The social scientists say that the pervasive corruption, brutality and base cruelty that have become synonymous with Bihar are a natural carryover from centuries of efforts by the high-caste masters to keep the low-caste serfs under their thumbs. Accepted standards of public morality cannot emerge as long as the remnants of a feudal system linger, they say.

Bihar, far off the tourist trail in the steaming-hot Gangetic plain between New Delhi and Calcutta, simmers with social conflicts and development problems.

Grisly accounts from here of police blinding 33 criminal suspects with needles in Bhagalpur shocked the world three years ago and compelled a shaken Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to ask Parliament tearfully, "What are we coming to?"

Here massacres of whole families of casteless untouchables by feudal landlords are commonplace enough to be back-page news in Indian newspapers. And here occasionally--as in the village of Karma last April--victims of political clashes are beheaded and their heads held aloft for photographers.

Bihar is where a third of the elected legislators have been or still are under indictment on charges ranging from bribery and extortion to rape and murder.

It is where almost nothing is transacted without a payoff. Bribes decide assignments for doctors and teachers, acceptance to universities, provision of essential utilities such as water and electricity, even medical care in the emergency wards, according to testimony in the state assembly in Patna, the capital.

Three years ago, students in Bihar's state universities went on strike demanding the right to cheat. To the surprise of few, they won. Now, as before the strike, they routinely copy the answers to examination questions from notes, but they do it legally.

"We have become totally dehumanized," said Deenanath Jha, editor of a Patna newspaper, The Indian Nation, which for years has been waging a losing battle for a cleanup of state government.

"It is all right if we talk about corruption and something is done about it. But if nothing is done, you begin to wonder why you should bother," said Jha, whose newspaper was the target of a draconian press control bill pushed by Bihar Chief Minister Jagannath Mishra last year.

It would have provided prison sentences for publishing "scurrilous" material about elected officials. The bill was dropped amid a national uproar over the specter of state censorship reminiscent of the tough emergency regulations Gandhi imposed between 1975 and 1977.

Crusading newspaper editors and members of opposition parties aren't the only ones who complain about a collapse of the civilized order in Bihar. Two weeks ago, 40 legislators from the ruling Congress (I) Party met in Patna and expressed concern over corruption and lawlessness in the state.

In a session of the state assembly two days later, legislators crossed party lines to condemn the police force as Bihar's "best organized gang of criminals."

During that session, bedlam broke out on the floor of the chamber in a scene that recalled a debate a week earlier in which some members flailed at each other with their fists until police interceded.

Mishra, scion of a high-caste Brahmin family with vast land holdings, sat stone-faced as the cacophony drowned out the whirring of the ceiling fans in the musty assembly chamber.

Fidgeting with the seven gem-studded rings he wears, he suddenly exploded in rage, threatening to adopt some unspecified "measures" if the legislators continued to challenge his authority.

A few minutes later, during an interview in his darkened, air-conditioned office, Mishra dismissed the charges of corruption as baseless.

"They can say anything they want, but there is no difference between Bihar and the other states," Mishra said, adding, "There is corruption in the other states in some form, but here it is magnified by the press and my opponents. A true Congress Party man would never say these things."

Asked if he felt he had the prime minister's support, Mishra replied, "The Congress Party is her party. I am a loyal soldier of Mrs. Gandhi. Without her support, I wouldn't be here."

The chief minister, who heads the state cabinet and whose function is equivalent to that of a governor, acknowledged that Bihar has an "image problem," but he said he had taken steps to curb corruption and increase efficiency in government.

Mishra claimed that even in Dhanbad, which he conceded had experienced a breakdown of law and order, corruption had been curbed and the "mafia gangs" controlled.

But the top state official in Dhanbad, Deputy District Commissioner J. S. Brara, who has earned a reputation of being a tough crime-fighter, challenged Mishra's contention.

Brara, an urbane civil servant who has a doctorate in rural development from the Center for East-West Studies in Hawaii, said that Dhanbad remains a microcosm of corruption in Bihar because most of the crime syndicate leaders are themselves politically powerful.

"They have political backing, lots of money and lots of weapons. Generally, deputy commissioners are removed from here about every year, particularly if they have been effective," Brara said.

Brara said the "godfather" of Dhanbad's syndicates is Suryadeo Singh, a portly former night watchman who now is a Janata Party state assemblyman and a wealthy landowner.

When Singh was arrested last month on charges of attempting to murder a Communist Party leader who heads a rival underworld gang, national Janata Party leader Chandra Shekhar came here and warned of a "bloodbath" if Singh were not released. Several days later, he was released on a stay order by the state supreme court.

The second-ranking "don" of Dhanbad, Brara and other officials said, is Satyra Dev Singh, a former syndicate goonda (strongman) who rose to become a Congress (I) Party leader and whose brother, Dayal Singh, until recently was Mishra's rural development minister. Suryadeo Singh and Satyra Dev Singh are not related.

Satyra Dev Singh has seven criminal cases pending against him, including one of attempted murder.

Brara said that all of Dhanbad's syndicate leaders were enforcers for labor pool contractors before India's coal mines were nationalized in 1972. They have since gained enormous wealth and power, he said, by forming a monopoly over the loading and transport of coal and the trucking of sand that is used to fill depleted shafts.

He said the syndicate's income comes mainly from loan sharking, extortion, pilfering coal and collecting on bogus bills for transporting and loading sand.

Brara, with officials of the state-owned Bharat Coking Coal Ltd., recently formed a civic organization to combat corruption here and to promote legitimate business investment. He also began a campaign of "preventive enforcement" by charging syndicate leaders under the National Security Act.

But he said it had been an uphill battle, adding, "Various committees that have studied Dhanbad all say that as long as Dhanbad provides so much money to the political parties, the parties will not make the hard decisions for reform."

A. K. Roy, an independent Marxist member of Parliament and leader of a coal miners' union here, estimated that of Dhanbad's $300 million annual cash flow of wages and loading and trucking fees, $100 million finds its way to the syndicates and politicians.

"There is a rush for black money, and the security officials and the vigilance committees are part of it. The officials say the situation has improved, but actually it is getting worse," Roy said in an interview.

Compounding the problem, he said, is an attempt by the coal companies to undercut the syndicate by mechanizing loading operations and taking over trucking operations. This, he said, merely eliminates jobs for the 170,000 coal field workers.

Meanwhile, Dhanbad lives in perpetual fear. The Coal Mines Officers' Association called for a strike last Sunday to protest the murders of four officers and assaults on 30 others in the eastern coal fields in the past six months; a worker who incurred the syndicate's wrath recently was shot in front of the deputy commissioner's office door, and a fugitive recently walked brazenly into a court and bailed out a friend who was being tried for murder.

Brara said that he had been threatened himself, but that he is not afraid because he knows that murdering him would be unnecessary for the syndicate.

The politicians, he said, simply can have him transferred. "I expect to be posted to New Delhi in a few months," he said.