Erratic rains test India's farming progress. But officials say nation's grain reserves will allay effects of current drought

With each day of bright sunshine and clear skies, Umrao Singh becomes gloomier. It is the summer rainy season in this fertile farm belt 20 miles north of New Delhi. But the fields are parched. Drinking water is in short supply. Electricity is out for half the day. And, except for an occasional shower, the monsoon rains have yet to arrive.

``Maybe the gods are angry,'' suggests the 66-year-old farmer thoughtfully. ``In our lives, we've never seen such a drought.''

India is enduring one of its weakest and most erratic monsoon seasons in decades. Downpours and floods in three northeastern states have killed scores of people and sent thousands fleeing their homes. But elsewhere, more than half the country thirsts for water and faces what some observers say could be this century's worst drought.

But though the unpredictable rains are vital to Indian agriculture, the drought afflicting many parts of the country no longer means desperate shortages. In the past, when rains failed the government had to import mountains of food to stave off famine. Today, India is self-sufficient in food. Successive rich harvests in the past several years have enabled it to build up a grain reserve of about 24 million tons.

But, more than half of India's annual food grain production of 150 million tons is produced in the wet summer months. And, despite increasing irrigation, almost three-fourths of farm crops depend on seasonal rains.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi says the government can cover this year's expected 10 to 20 million-ton food shortfall without outside help. ``India can take in its stride droughts like the one currently stalking the country,'' he said recently. ``We have sufficient buffer stocks of food grains to feed the people in every corner of the country.''

Weather forecasters say the monsoon could still appear this month. The delay is blamed on a persistent rise in the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean, off the South American coast. That aberration is blocking the movement of monsoon clouds, causing drought in much of South and Southeast Asia.

But even if the rains come, widespread damage has already been done, agricultural experts say. Three-quarters of the crops have shriveled in the northwest states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, India's breadbasket. In some places, ground water is being depleted, threatening future harvests.

The government is mobilizing a huge relief effort expected to cost more than $700 million.

The Indian government has extensive experience in dealing with drought and famine, foreign relief experts say. Still, it is likely to have a difficult time distributing food in remote drought-hit areas and moving starving livestock to areas where there is sufficient fodder. At the same time, the government is grappling with a worsening flood situation in parts of Bengal, Assam, and Bihar.

``It's going to be a tough year,'' says I.Z. Bhatty, an economist at a New Delhi think tank. ``But we'll be able to ride it through.''

Falling food production is not the only problem. In Gujarat and Rajasthan, which have been hurt by three years of poor rains, wells are drying up and cattle are dying. Farmers complain that they have given up irrigating their fields and are struggling to get enough drinking water.

``Our women have to wait for hours in front of a trickling tap to quench our thirst and that of our animals,'' says Umrao Singh in Barawala, a village of 400 farmers.

The drought is also taking a toll in cities. New Delhi's middle-class neighborhoods have been hit by water shortages. Power outages are widespread as electricity is shifted to run irrigation pumps on the farms. As temperatures and tempers rise, city dwellers also are eager for the monsoon's relief. ``The electricity was off in my office today,'' complained Umesh Singh, sitting by candlelight in her comfortable suburban home. ``I had so looked forward to coming home to electricity, lights, and my television.''

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