| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI Monsoon strengthened at the start of the key planting month after recording the weakest first month of the June-September rainy season in five years, weather officials said on Thursday.
The late surge in monsoon rains comes as a big relief to farmers, who can now begin to plant summer crops such as rice, corn, cane, soybean and cotton.
"The monsoon has revived in many parts of central and north India," said B.P. Yadav, head of the National Weather Forecasting Centre at the India Meteorological Department.
India, one of the world's top producers and consumers of rice, corn, cooking oil, sugar and cotton, relies heavily on the summer rains as nearly half of its farmland is rainfed.
Agriculture sector accounts for around 14 percent of its nearly $2 trillion economy, and two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population live in rural areas.
A poor monsoon season cuts exports, stokes food inflation and leads to lower demand for industries ranging from cars to consumer goods, while even a slow start can delay exports of some crops and increase the need for imports.
July, the second month of the monsoon season, usually gets the maximum rainfall, accounting for about a third of the seasonal downpour. Summer sowing activities pick up during the month as the monsoon rains cover the entire country.
"The revival phase is expected to continue next week," said a weather official, who did not wish to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Annual rains arrived five days later than the normal June 1 start over the Kerala coast, and then covered half of India four days later than the usual date of June 15.
June's rainfall was 43 percent below average, making it the worst first month since 2009, when the season turned out to be the driest since 1972. Yadav said monsoon progress had resumed in the first two days of July, with heavy rainfall in many parts of north India, including the capital New Delhi.
Experts forecast an improvement in rainfall during the key planting months of July and August, but it will still be hard to wipe out the huge gap created by the season's first month.
"We are sticking to the forecast of below-average rainfall and not revising the forecast despite the signs of improvement," said Shailesh Nayak, the top bureaucrat in the Earth Sciences Ministry.
The weak start to this year's monsoon pushed the government to take tough steps including raids against hoarders to ease market concerns over possible supply shortages.
Soaring prices of basic goods such as milk and potatoes lifted retail food inflation in May to 9.4 percent and there have been fears of worse to come with the delayed spread of the monsoon to the grain bowl region of northwest India.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took steps in the last couple of weeks such as imposing floor prices for overseas sales of onions and potatoes.
"There should not be any reckless hoarding of these two essential items," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, law minister and spokesman for the council of ministers.
(Editing by Dale Hudson)