NEW DELHI Ample annual monsoon rains have covered half of India two days ahead of the usual date and more hefty downpours are expected next week, weather experts said on Thursday, easing concern over southwestern regions parched by drought.
The June to September monsoon is crucial for farm output and economic growth in India, where just over half of arable land is rain-fed. The farm sector makes up about 15 percent of the nearly $2-trillion economy that is Asia's third-biggest.
"In fact, monsoon rains have advanced slightly more than half of the landmass," said one official at the weather department, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Rainfall in the second week of the season ending June 12 was 35 percent above average, helping early planting of a host of summer crops, including rice, oilseeds and cotton, in many parts of the country.
The monsoon arrived on schedule on the southern Kerala coast on June 1, and then spread inland faster than usual. Between the start of the season and June 13, the rains were 28 percent above average.
Adequate monsoon rain should help the economy and hold down inflation, a critical concern for India's coalition government as it readies for a round of state polls this year and a national election by May 2014.
The government hopes to pass a $24 billion welfare scheme to give cheap food to more of its poor in a special session of parliament and hefty monsoon rains will boost confidence harvests will be ample to cover the extra grains it needs.
GRAPHIC: India monsoon 2012 link.reuters.com/dyt57t
GRAPHIC: Farm output vs rains link.reuters.com/jer47t
In these initial stages of the June-September season, planting is key and the crops themselves are not greatly affected by the quantity of rain. Rainfall distribution in mid-July, after the monsoon covers the entire country, is more important for their growth.
"There has been plenty of rainfall over drought areas of the southern region and even adjoining Maharashtra has received excess splash," P. Chengal Reddy, the chief of a farmers' body, told Reuters from Hyderabad.
Seven southern and western states, including Maharashtra, which were hit by drought last year need plentiful and timely rain to assist a recovery and appear to have received ample downpours early.
Rains were below average in the eastern state of Bihar in the past week, the weather office said, bringing some cheer to corn farmers who were struggling to store their produce due to heavy showers since the start of the monsoon season.
Farmers began harvesting their winter-sown corn crop in May but storage was an issue due to bountiful rains in the state. There is fear that rains have blighted the crop.
"Rains in Bihar have deteriorated the quality of the crop and supplies have come down sharply," said Kanhaiyalal Agarwal, a trader from Bangalore.
Agarwal said the extent of the damage could rise if the monsoon rains turn out to be excess in the next week.
The Indian weather office will update its outlook for the monsoon over the whole of India, along with a regional forecast, later in June. The weather office counts rainfall of 89 centimetres, give or take four percent, throughout the whole four-month period as normal, or average.
(Additinal reporting by Meenakshi Sharma in MUMBAI; editing by Jo Winterbottom and Patrick Graham)