India's monsoon: a time of washouts and waiting

People in Nepal are sacrificing goats to stop the floods, while in Delhi they are waiting for rain in their skivvies.

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It is the season of sour milk. India's hot season - eight months of sweat and fecundity that includes every month that doesn't have an "r" and even a few months that do - has always been the enemy of a cold glass of milk. Constant power cuts, some of them lasting up to eight hours, mean that even the most modern refrigerators let food spoil. Those Indians who take milk in their tea, which is to say everybody, often open the fridge to find yogurt instead.

The one respite from all this heat is the monsoon, a June-to-September rainy season that drenches the countryside, replenishes the rivers, and has given centuries-worth of poets all their best lines and imagery.

Working its way south to north, the monsoon is a veritable conveyor belt of moisture that is drawn to the heat of India's vast plains. For weeks, the rain comes in torrential downpours nearly every day with breaks of sun in between.

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But the monsoon is not perfect or reliable. Here in the northwest of the country, the monsoon is about 15 days late, and vast stretches of India's breadbasket remain parched during the peak sowing season. The latest data show 42 percent of India's land has experienced below-average rainfall since June 1.

However, in the east, from the Himalayan border with Nepal and down to the salt-marsh borders of Bangladesh, the monsoon has brought floods that have killed hundreds and left untold thousands homeless. Nepalese sacrificed goats over the weekend as a prayer for an end to the deluge.

The excesses of nature are a bracing first test for India's new government, a left-leaning coalition that built its campaign on helping farmers. Thus far, officials have reacted in an appropriately schizophrenic fashion, promising drought relief to some and flood relief to others. On Indian TV news channels, there has been endless footage of newly appointed ministers helicoptering over the countryside waving at stunned and famished villagers standing knee-deep in ponds that used to be villages. Over the weekend, Indian Air Force helicopters were still picking villagers from the branches of trees in the flooded state of Bihar.

Compassion is good politics in a country where perhaps 70 percent of the economy is directly related to agriculture, and thus, to a good monsoon. Bad monsoons can bring down governments.

Here on the cracked earth of the northwest, state leaders are busy fighting over what little water there is left. Already, states like Punjab and Haryana are taking second looks at their water-sharing agreements, and saying, "Sorry, old chap, but we won't be able to share a third of the Ravi River with you this year."

In Delhi, city officials announced last week that the water supply might have to be rationed, pumped to neighborhoods on alternating days. The supply of electricity is being rationed too, in a way. India's newly privatized electrical power supply companies have inherited a system where theft of power is the norm, and where there is no way to keep up with the ever-rising demand. On hot days, when all those prosperous members of the Indian middle class return home and switch on their air conditioners en masse, whole neighborhoods can be plunged into darkness.

It is during power outages that one can see the dividing line between India's haves and have-nots. Actually, it's something that one hears.

Within seconds of any power cut, the put-puttering whir of generators starts up, and a scattering of houses light up amid the darkness. Those with generators may mutter at the brief, intermittent power surges that make them miss a few lines of their favorite Hindi soap opera on TV. They can safely open the refrigerator for a glass of limeade, and another, without worrying about spoiling the milk.

Those who cannot afford generators, or the hundreds of dollars in diesel fuel per month, have no other choice but to sit in silence and longing. Some strip down to their thin cotton skivvies, fan themselves, and look up to the skies, willing the clouds to come.

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