New Delhi: Monsoon rains in the country were above average in the past week for the first time in the current season, the weather office said, as the downpours resumed after a worrying fortnight-long pause over the central part of the country.
The annual rains are crucial for farm output and economic growth as about 55 per cent of India's arable land is rain-fed. The farm sector accounts for about 15 per cent of a nearly $2-trillion economy, Asia's third-biggest.
Rains were 1 per cent above average for the week ended July 11, a sharp improvement from 49 per cent below average in the previous week - allaying fears of a drought, which would hit output of food crops in the major consumer and producer.
Rapid progress of monsoon rains over the grain bowl of northwest India helped cover the entire country four days ahead of the usual date of July 15 although weather officials have cautioned it could remain weak until next week.
"The monsoon scenario is not as bad as has been painted," Food Minister KV Thomas said.
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had already said on Wednesday the rains had improved, speeding the sowing of major summer crops such as rice and cotton.
Rains had been 30 per cent below average from June 1 to July 4 and now that deficit has narrowed to 22 per cent below average.
Weather officials said the monsoon rains would be above average over the hilly regions of the north and northeast over the next three days, helping to fill reservoirs, but would decrease over northern states such as Punjab and Haryana in the grain bowl of India early next week.
The revival of rains over central India increased the pace of soybean planting, which is now almost 80 per cent complete in Madhya Pradesh, the main producing state for the oilseed, an industry official said.
"Rains are needed even in the next week to complete the sowing operations," said Rajesh Agrawal, spokesman for the Soybean Processors' Association of India said.
Soybean is the main oilseed crop for India, the world's biggest importer of cooking oils and also a major supplier of soymeal to nations such as Iran, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand.
By July 6, soybean had been planted in 1.9 million hectares, more than the normal area, according to preliminary agriculture ministry data. A further update will be issued on Friday.
Thomas said the planting scenario for rice and cane was also "good". India also has huge stockpiles of rice after three years of bumper harvests. By July 1, government rice stocks were 30.7 million tonnes, much higher than the 9.8 million tonnes targeted for the quarter to end-September.
But concerns remain for cereals in some rain-fed areas of the western state of Maharashtra and southern Karnataka. Cereals had been planted on 2.19 million hectares by July 6 compared with normal acreage of 5.66 million hectares.
"It is true that the rains are late in some areas where farmers have been advised to sow short-duration, high-yielding seed varieties," Thomas said.
Rains were also weak in cane-growing areas of Maharashtra and Karnataka in the past week, while cane-growing areas of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh received above average rains.
"Cane crop is mainly grown in irrigated areas and it can withstand any temporary lull in the monsoon," said AK Singh, deputy director-general of the state-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
But any long dry spell could affect the sugar yield of the cane crop, as happened in 2009 when India had to import from international markets, pushing prices to 30-year highs.
India's weather office is sticking to its forecast for an average monsoon this year, even factoring in the effect of an El Nino weather pattern.
El Nino causes a warming of ocean surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific that can trigger droughts or heavy rain in Asia.
LS Rathore, chief of the India Meteorological Department, said on Wednesday the weather pattern was unlikely to develop before mid-August, or after farmers had finished planting most of their summer crop.