New Delhi — The monsoon rains that came too little and too late to avert a major drought in India last summer have returned this year with a vengeance. Populous northern states that lost tons of potential crops in parched fields last year now are inundated with flood waters that have claimed more than 300 lives and damaged more than a million acres of freshly sown crops.
In hard-hit Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, swollen rivers, landslides, and torrential downpours have washed away more than 100,000 houses, from the thatch huts of the poor to the once elegant multi-story homes of 19th-century nawabs.
But to a country dependent on the monsoon for next year's meals, too much rain is better than too little. Although millions whose fields and homes have been flooded will face a year of hardship, most of India's 650 million people are rejoicing at the prospect of full dinner plates or banana leaves -- the poor man's eating utensil.
Last year's skimpy monsoon cost India 15 million tons of food, an 11.5 percent drop from the previous year. Only the government's stockpile of food grains amassed during earlier harvests spared the vast drought-hit areas from major famine.
By official statistics, 306 million Indians live below the poverty line, including more than half of the rural population. For rural dwellers, the official definition of poverty means lacking even the $8 a month to afford a minimum daily diet of 2,400 calories.
For city residents less attuned than their farm cousins to the rhythms of the land, the monsoon rains bring a host of new inconveniences. City streets turn to ankle- or knee-deep ponds. Ill-maintained sewers fail to cope with daily downpours.
In the capital, bus passengers traversing one of Delhi's busiest roads had to scramble out the windows to the roof when their bus hit an eight-foot-deep lake beneath an overpass. City telephone lines, erratic in the best of times, go dead as rain water seeps into underground cables. Some 6,500 lines have yet to be restored after a downpour in late June knocked out 15,000 lines.
As the rain slows road transport, food items are commanding a premium price. Merchants selling fruits and vegetables by weight are raking in extra rupees from water-logged produce.
With the rising, Jumma River threatening flood-prone villages on Delhi's outskirts, villagers are bringing their cattle into the city to graze in parks and residential areas. The cows, sacred to Hindus, have no qualms about settling down to rest in the middle of busy roads -- and motorist have no choice but to weave around them.
But city residents are enjoying the benefits of the monsoon, too. Temperatures that hovered at 110 degrees for two sweltering months have dropped to balmy high 80s and 90s, and pathetic brown parks and lawns are now a deep, lush green.
The residue of the fierce dust storms that swirled out of the Rajasthan Desert has been washed away, giving a fresh scrubbed sparkle to the capital's buildings and roads. The frequent power outages that blackened the city are fading into memory as full reservoirs aid hydroelectric plant output.