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India's monsoon arrives early to give boost to thirsty crops

[NEW DELHI] The southwest monsoon that waters about half of India's farmland arrived in the country slightly ahead of its normal schedule, giving a boost to farmers planting rice to soybeans crops in coming weeks.

Monsoon rain has reached the southern state of Kerala, KJ Ramesh, chief of India Meteorological Department, said by phone. The June-September rainy period typically starts on June 1 and the department had predicted a May 30 onset.

The monsoon accounts for more than 70 per cent of annual rain and is critical to grain, pulses and sugarcane output. The world's second-biggest sugar producer can switch between exporter and importer depending on the monsoon. Precipitation in June and July is critical and any deficit in the early part of the season could delay sowing and hurt crops, even if the monsoon gathers pace later.

The weather office had forecast precipitation this year at 96 per cent of a 50-year average. The country saw normal rainfall last year after two consecutive years of drought. Private forecaster Skymet Weather Services Pvt in March predicted the monsoon would be 95 per cent of the long-term average, meeting its definition of a below-normal season, citing concerns about the possible development of an El Nino weather pattern.

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The India Meteorological Department said in April that a weak El Nino may only develop in the later part of the rainy season, with a less than 50 per cent chance of it developing before August. In 34 per cent of El Nino years, monsoon rainfall was normal or above normal, it has said. Australia's Bureau of Meteorology also said in May that while there is a 50 per cent chance of the event this year, it may be weak.

The annual monsoon waters about half of India's crops, with agriculture accounting for about 14 per cent of the economy. About 800 million people live in villages and depend on farming.