Indian monsoon 30% short, govt tries to allay fears

India's agriculture minister on Tuesday warned the annual monsoon, which is crucial to the country's economy, was 31 percent below average but he added increased rainfall was forecast.

Sharad Pawar said heavy rains were predicted in the key planting months of July and August to make up for deficient monsoon rains received over the last month.

"Overall delay of monsoon is by two weeks," Pawar told reporters in New Delhi. "Up to July 2, the country as a whole has deficiency of 31 percent, but rainfall is expected to be better from next week onwards."

"We have ample opportunity to cover up gaps," he added.

Monsoon floods in the northeast have killed scores of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, but rainfall has been weak in the northwestern grain-bowl and the oil seed-growing central regions.

Pawar admitted the poor rainfall in some states had affected the sowing of crops like maize, though he said the rice situation was "not worrisome".

"There is no problem of availability of food grain. Government is ready to supply if the time comes," he said.

The monsoon is dubbed the "economic lifeline" of India, which has a population of 1.2 billion and is one of the world's leading producers of rice, sugar, wheat and cotton.

Millions of Indian farmers still rely on monsoon rains to water around 60 percent of the country's farmland -- despite efforts to improve irrigation and water-harvesting methods to ensure more stable supplies.

Government agencies last month said they would maintain their forecast for an average monsoon.

But doubts about forecasting remain after the official meteorological department predicted a normal monsoon in 2009 and the country suffered its worst drought in decades.

The lack of rainfall sent food prices rocketing, causing huge hardship for the country's hundreds of millions of poor.

Rural spending accounts for more than 50 percent of domestic consumption and a poor monsoon hits demand for everything from refrigerators to cars.

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