Driven from his village by lack of food, a man died of starvation in the railroad yards here three weeks ago. According to residents of this district capital in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, vultures, crows and wild dogs picked his body clean before the authorities got around to burying him.

In the countryside, villagers are forced to grub for roots and berries. They subsist on them and a thin soup made by boiling up leaves from trees. In one village, a mob of hungry Untouchables hijacked the grain from a food merchant's camel caravan.

Once again, famine is stalking parts of India. It is not the mass starvations that have killed millions in past years, nor can it be compared with Cambodia today or the famines of Africa's Sahel region a decade ago.

With a reserve of 20 million tons of grain in central government warehouses, there is enough food in hand to feed the country. The problem is distributing it to the needy.

Nevertheless, India's worse drought of this century has pushed millions of this country's landless farm workers over the narrow edge that separates bare survival of their normal life from near starvation.

Although the government denies it, residents across the one-third of the country hardest hit by the lack of summer rains -- stretching in a broad belt from the deserts of Rajasthan in the northwest through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar to West Bengal on the Bay of Bengal -- are reporting an increasing number of starvation deaths.

The government estimates crop losses from the summer plantings -- which have just been harvested -- at between 11 million and 12 million tons. The lack of fall rains indicates to experts in New Delhi that the crop loss for the year will be far greater.

Prime Minister Charan Singh said the current drought is worse than the one of 1918. The chief ministers of three states -- Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh -- have demanded more aid from the central government to alleviate "unprecedented famine conditions."

The goverment estimated it is spending $562.5 million to aid the drought-hit states.

Distribution problems seem formidable, however.

Inder Malhotra, a respected editor of the Times of India, reported how some government officials in Uttar Pradesh would rather see people starve than deviate even the slightest from the rules and that "petty corruption" is siphoning grain away from the poor.

For example, Malhotra reported the man who distributed the grain in one village to people taking part in a government public works program keeps a half-pound for every 10 pounds he gives out to supplement his daily wage of 60 cents.

Moreover, Malhotra found that the richer farmers in this district used their power to get irrigation water for their land while the rest of the fields remain parched.

At least 15,000 persons in this district alone have been reported as destitute. According to residents here, 90 percent of the wells in the district are dry -- leading to an acute shortage of drinking water which is being sold at 25 cents a pail for the few who can afford it. Others beg sips from railroad trains in the station or walk four miles to get some from a working well.

In Bihar, farmers from two villages fought an hour-long shootout last month over the rights to irrigation water. The farmers of one village refused to let other villages get any water from the one tube well they are supposed to share.

According to press accounts, there have been clashes over irrigation water in a half dozen villages in Bihar. At least five persons have been killed.

In Rajasthan, the lack of rain has dried up the Ghana bird sanctuary, and many of the colorful painted storks that usually next there in the winter have flown elsewhere. Birds that remained were forced to build nexts in the open, where crows and eagles were able to snatch the unhatched eggs.

Even with a food-for-work program, residents here said 24 persons have died of starvation in the past two months. The dead include the old and the very young.

The question of starvation deaths, though, has gotten caught up in India's election campaign with the state government here, allied with Prime Minister Singh's caretaker government, working to minimize public attention to the effect of the drought.

While Malhotra said he could not verify each of the 24 claimed deaths in Banda, he said he was able to check enough of them to know that residents here have died of starvation.

A drive through parched countryside is enough to show how the lack of rain is hurting.Lines of people, their meager belongings on their heads, plod along the roads towards the nearest cities, where they hope to get work.

In Kampur, near here, the men drive cycle-rickshaws. In New Delhi, they have set up camps near construction projects hoping to get daywork moving dirt or carrying bricks.

But there is little work in the cities. "No food to eat and no place to go for a job," said one man squatting outside the Supreme Court building there. One woman gave birth to a baby on the sidewalk; she said she had no other place to go.

Bhanu Pratap Singh, the minister of rural development, said the Indian government is distributing 500 tons of grain a day to villagers in this district as part of a food-for-work scheme.

But he acknowledged that India's entire reserve stock of 20 million tons could be wiped out by this year's drought if there are no winter rains.

This drought is seen by economists around the world as a test of India's agricultural strength, which many observers believed earlier this year was vigorous enough to withstand a poor monsoon without widespread famine or massive imports or food.

A key to that new strength was a doubling over the past five years of the amount of land under irrigation. But massive shortages of electric power and diesel fuel needed to run the irrigation pumps have frustrated efforts to move water from wells into fields.

The diesel shortage is so grave that Singh said he has ordered a study to see if the government should support the digging of any more wells.