India's crucial monsoon rains are still expected to be average in 2012, the weather office said on Friday, helping to allay concern over farm output triggered by sparse rainfall in the last few weeks.
Monsoon rains are critical for farm output and economic growth as about 55 percent of the south Asian nation's arable land is rain-fed, and the farm sector makes up about 15 percent of a nearly $2-trillion economy, Asia's third-biggest.
India's weather office had already forecast an average monsoon in April, before the rainy season started, although at the time it had expected slightly heavier rains.
The India Meteorological Department said in a statement monsoon rains in 2012 would be 96 percent of the long-term average, down from the April forecast of 99 percent.
The rains have been 24 percent below average since the season began, delaying sowing of summer-sown crops such as sugar cane, soybean and cotton in central and southern India.
"Average rainfall is good for crop production, but it needs to be evenly distributed. So far the spread wasn't good," said Nalini Rao, a senior analyst at Mumbai-based brokerage Angel Commodities Pvt Ltd.
"Sowing in some areas was delayed due to poor rainfall. There is need of good rains in the next two-three weeks to accelerate sowing."
This year, average rainfall is more important as growth in the Asian country has been slowing amid rising prices.
Monthly monsoon rains, click http://link.reuters.com/bew88s
Rains picked up from early lows last week, but concerns remain as the monsoon is still below average and behind schedule particularly in the grain bowl of the north-west.
The monsoon has paused over central India but should pick up momentum from June 26 and cover the entire country by mid-July on schedule, said Shailesh Nayak, secretary at the Earth Sciences ministry, which oversees the weather department.
"The latest forecast is good and definitely not alarming as the long term average has not been revised below 90 percent which would have meant a drought this year," said M. Rajeevan, a senior scientist at the ministry of earth sciences.
Average rainfall this year would mean avoiding a drought for a third year in a row in one of the world's biggest consumers of rice, wheat and sugar, with a population of about 1.2 billion.
A normal or average monsoon means rainfall between 96 percent and 104 percent of a 50-year average of 89 cm during the four-month season from June, the weather office says.
The weather office also forecast average rains in July and August, key months for the planting and maturing of crops, as the El Nino weather phenomenon is unlikely to reduce rain then.
July rains this year are likely to be 98 percent of the long period average, with August rainfall forecast at 96 percent.
India is largely self-sufficient in rice, sugar and grains, but imports half its edible oils needs and some pulses.
Drought can force it to turn to international markets, as in 2009, when India's sugar buys pushed prices to multi-year highs. Conversely, after recent bumper harvests, it is now exporting sugar, rice and wheat.
Rainfall below 90 percent of the average is considered a drought. The last drought with rains below this range was in 2009 and further back, in 2004.
Rainfall between 90 and 96 percent of average is considered below average while above 110 percent is an excessive monsoon.
Monsoon rains are crucial to bring prosperity to farmers, which helps demand for gold, fertilisers and sales of consumer goods and cars as two-thirds of India's population depends on agriculture.