Rains give India welcome respite after three years of drought. But country still needs imports to replenish depleted food stock

After three years of drought, Ram Kishan's two-acre farm is green, and his pond is full. Like millions of Indians parched by the century's worst drought, the farmer is savoring the arrival this month of the summer monsoon. Just a year ago, two-thirds of India withered for lack of rain. Today, much of the country blossoms under drenching showers.

Still, Mr. Kishan says it will take more than a month of rain to replenish ground water and revitalize his farm.

``We need six or seven more good showers this year to tide us over, and two more good seasons,'' he said during a recent sunny break at his village 12 miles southwest of New Delhi. ``It's unpredictable. We are still dependent on the vagaries of rain.''

Summer rains are reviving India's drought-ravaged agricultural sector. But the long-awaited showers also have brought floods and disease that have killed more than 400 people across the country, officials report. This year's rains are having an unusually harsh effect in crowded urban areas: In the capital, New Delhi, about 120 people have died in a cholera outbreak in flooded slums. Last week, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi slogged through mud in affected areas and blamed city officials for the accummulated garbage and poor water and sanitation. The rains have caused widespread flooding in some rural areas in north India.

For many farmers, though, the monsoon has brought good news. This year's rains, Agricultural Minister Bhajan Lal says, have been ``the best since 1983'' and predicted good crops in grains and vegetables.

But India will not rebound from the devastating dry spell overnight. Food production during the three-year drought faltered, and reserves dwindled from about 30 million metric tons to less than 10 million tons.

Once more, India is importing sizable amounts of food from the United States, Europe, and some of its Asian neighbors to restore the food-safety net and to meet expected shortfalls this year. Through the 1960s' green revolution, India, which 20 years ago had to import mountains of grain to stave off famine, had become self-sufficient. But in April, India contracted to buy 1 million metric tons of wheat from the US, and officials are now in Washington negotiating another purchase of 1 million tons. Earlier this month, the country also reached agreement to buy half-a-million tons of rice from Thailand.

Western agricultural analysts here predict the Indian government will have to buy about 4 million tons of food valued at $400 million both this year and next to put the nation on firm footing again.

``The drought has put people on their toes in terms of how vulnerable the situation really is,'' says a foreign farming expert in New Delhi.

Still, government officials and Indian analysts say that agricultural advances in recent years have given the economy the resilience to bounce back. At the height of the drought last year, grain production was off 4.2 percent, a government agricultural official said, compared to 19 percent during the severe drought of 1965-66. Farmers account for one-third of national output.

The government is projecting a bumper crop during the crucial summer season which accounts for half of annual food output. In what some Western observers say is too rosy a picture, government officials predict that total grain production will jump this year to 166 million tons from 138 million tons in 1987-88.

``This food problem has always hung like a sword of Damocles over our heads,'' observes B.M. Bhatia, an agricultural analyst at the Center for Policy Research, an independent New Delhi think tank. ``Now we are no more a famine country.''

Despite an end to the drought and better crops, farm analysts say, the government is worried that panic buying and grain speculation could boost prices, bringing new political headaches for Prime Minister Gandhi.

In the past year, public spending to counter the drought has pushed the government deeply into deficit and triggered higher prices for food, gasoline, and vital services. To dampen inflation, the government turned to wheat imports to cover serious shortfalls in purchases to replenish government stocks. Officials blamed farmers for hoarding the grain and holding out for higher prices.

But analysts blame the shortage on an official pricing policy under which the government wheat would be sold for 40 percent more than the purchase price. Grain traders sidestepped the government and bought huge quantities on their own.

``The whole livelihood of these farmers depends on their crops,'' says Khazhan Singh, a large landholder and village chief of Jharsa. ``After this drought, how can the farmers afford to hoard their crops?''

Down the road, the outlook remains disturbing, analysts say. Although India may replenish its farm storage bins, population growth will continue to outpace agriculture gains. Already, it is estimated that 40 percent of the people cannot afford to buy enough food to meet minimum calorie requirements. Per capita food consumption has continued to slip, analysts say, despite rich harvests of recent years.

Kishan, the farmer, says that even in the best of times he can't afford to feed his family and 50 other relatives who live on his two-acre tract. With good rains, he expects to grow two crops this year. Still, many family members will go to New Delhi looking for work.

``Even with good monsoons, we remain poor and have to fend for ourselves,'' says the weathered farmer. ``For us, it is a hand-to-mouth livelihood.''

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