The farmer's crops withered and turned brown in fields within sight of the glittering white Taj Mahal, his laboriously dug 70-foot-deep well useless for irrigation because there was no diesel fuel for the pump.

Deep in dept after buying the pump and digging the well, this farmer in the city of Agra, 100 miles southeast of here in the state of Uttar Pradesh, now fears the loss of his five acres of land to moneylenders. The drought causing his problems has damaged severely crops in 14 of India's 31 states, and is being called the worst to hit the country this century.

Across the country, government officials estimate the value of crops lost to the drought at $4.375 billion.

This summer's drought is providing the first real test of India's new agricultural strength. Many economists -- including officials of the World Bank -- said last spring that Indian agriculture is vigorous enough to withstand the effects of a bad monsoon without causing widespread famine or forcing massive food imports.

While the amount of land now being irrigated -- a key to this new agricultural strength -- has doubled over the past five years, efforts to move water from wells to fields have been frustrated by shortages of electric power and diesel fuel.

Under pressure from farmers who have tried to shanghai diesel trucks from highways to get fuel for their water pumps, the government has increased the allotment to farmers.

But observers here believe the action came too late to salvage crops that should have been watered by this summer's monsoon, which provided too little moisture for most of the country.

India's fall harvest is expected to be at least 12 million tons short of last year's record crop of 130 million tons. Only storehouses bulging with 20 million tons of grain reserves collected during the past four years of good harvests are preventing a famine.

"Five years ago, a drought of this severity would have been a disaster," said Agriculture Ministry secretary M. S. Swaminathan.

"This is the first time in history India is facing a drought with substantial grain reserves," he said.

Nonetheless, reports from across this vast country show millions of people -- most of them landless farm workers who already live on the brink of starvation -- are suffering from lack of food as crops wither.

The newspaper Economic Times reported from a village in the state of Bihar -- one of the hardest hit by the drought -- that some workers had not eaten in four days because they were unable to get work so they could buy food.

Although there have been no reported deaths from starvation there, government officials estimate that 6 million people are going hungry.

In the desert state of Rajasthan, farmers are moving their livestock to areas where there might be more feed. Drinking water for 500 villages has dried up and the water in another 165 villages is unfit for human consumption. In all, 20 million people in 25,000 villages are suffering from lack of water.

In Andhra Pradesh, crop losses total $1.25 million and more than half the irrigated land is barren. Crops there will yield from 40 to 45 percent of normal levels.

The most shocking loss, however, occurred in the Punjab, the breadbasket of India. In that state, which has piled up record crops year after year, the drought is cutting production by at least 20 percent, and farmers are angry over the lack of power to run pumps they bought to irrigate the fields.

"My misfortune is that I have been outwitted by the electricity people," one farmer said.

It is lack of power and fuel that compounds the effects of this year's drought. If all the land available for irrigation had been watered, statistics would be different, experts here agree.

"They certainly have tried to build stability into the systems, but they're not there yet," said Norman Collins, a Ford Foundation agricultural expert here.

"India can stand the loss of one year's crop. But it's a question of where it goes from here. You wouldn't want this to happen two or three years in a row," Collins added.

Also in danger is the still-unplanted winter crop, which needs rain during the next few months to wet the ground so seeds can germinate. Failure of that crop "would be a shattering blow," said Ivan E. Johnson the U.S. Embassy's agricultural counselor here.

While the government is pushing a food-for-work program to feed the hungry and scientific farming to save the crops, farmers are resorting to old superstitions to bring the rains.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, naked women tilled the fields at night to appease the rain god and bring showers. In another drought-hit area of the country -- on the border of the state of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh -- 500 dogs were fed in a special feast and several hundred virgins ate skimmed yogurt after day-long meditation.