* Monsoon seen active over northwest India next week
* Western parts of Rajasthan state received heavy rains
By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI, Aug 16 (Reuters) - India’s monsoon rains were slightly below average in the past week, but heavy downpours arrived in a parched western state, the weather office said on Thursday, easing fears of a repeat of the widespread drought that gripped the country three years ago.
Rains were 2 percent below average in the week to Aug. 15, which was little changed from the 1 percent figure the previous week and showed that an overall improvement, which began at the end of July, was still intact.
The 2009 drought, when June-September monsoon rains were 22 percent below average, forced India to import sugar, pushing global prices to 30-year highs.
This year, the deficient monsoon has cut the total area planted with cereals and lentils, threatening the supplies of animal feed and fodder in coming months.
India has taken steps to cut irrigation costs and increase fodder supplies for livestock farmers, but it has held off from imposing curbs on agricultural exports or banning futures trading in farm products.
Rains spread last week to lentil-producing areas of the western state of Rajasthan, which have needed water this season. The rains were as high as 248 percent above average in the parched parts of the desert state.
The weather office has forecast more rain in Rajasthan, improving the outlook for winter-sown crops such as rapeseed, which are grown in irrigated areas. India is the world’s top buyer of vegetable oils.
“Monsoon rains are catching up with the late revival in the western and central regions, which will ensure soil moisture for winter crops such as rapeseed and wheat,” said B.B. Pattanaik, managing director of the state-run Central Warehousing Corporation.
Soybean and rice areas of central and eastern India received average rain last week, improving output prospects. Rains at regular intervals after planting typically boost yields.
The recent improvement has narrowed the rainfall deficiency to 15 percent so far for the season, which started in June. This is due to a pick-up from the second half of July, after a rain deficiency of 29 percent in June. In July, the rains were about 13 percent below average.
The annual monsoon brings about 75 percent of the country’s annual rainfall.
Earlier this month, India’s weather office revised its forecast for the monsoon season to deficient rains - a drought in layman’s terms.
Harish Rawat, the junior farm minister, said the total area affected by drought has been lower this year than in 2009 and pointed out that the government had already introduced contingency plans for those areas hit the worst.
Punjab and Haryana are the most-affected states in the north, Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west and Karnataka in the south.
The monsoon rains continued to be poor in parts of Gujarat, which grow cotton and oilseeds, but improved over cane areas of Maharashtra.
Rains in the grain bowl states of Punjab and Haryana have been below average, though major crops such as rice and cotton were sown there using irrigation.
Rawat said overall grain output is unlikely to fall to the level of 2009/10, when production declined by about 7 percent to 218.11 million tonnes.
The country produced 257.44 million tonnes of grain in the crop year that ended in June 2012, a record, as the monsoon rains were normal in 2011.