By Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's monsoon rains are likely to be below the prior forecast of 88 percent of the long-term average, the weather office chief said, which could make it the driest year since 2009 and worsen rural distress by cutting farm output.
The July-September rains irrigate nearly half of India's farmlands, bringing relief to millions of poor farmers who till small plots of land to sustain their families.
This would be the second straight year of drought- or drought-like conditions for only the fourth time in 115 years, which is another setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi struggling to win over political opposition to pass reforms and unshackle Asia's third-largest economy.
"Overall monsoon rains will fall a notch or two below the 88 percent forecast that came out in June," India Meteorological Department's Laxman Singh Rathore told Reuters on Wednesday.
The World Meteorological Organization said on Tuesday that the current El Nino weather phenomenon, which leads to dry weather in some parts of the world and causes floods in other, was expected to peak between October and January and could turn into one of the strongest on record.
Rathore said the monsoon will start withdrawing from the western state of Rajasthan this weekend and farmers could be left with too little soil moisture to sow winter crops.
For rice grower Buddha Singh, whose crop is just starting to develop grains, patchy rains over the past two weeks are threatening to damage his cultivation.
"We need showers at short intervals, but that's not happening for the past 15-20 days," said Singh, a farmer in Delhi's neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. "We'll lose a lot of money."
Though rainfall was scanty last year too, a late surge delayed the retreat by about 15 days and left enough moisture for farmers to start planting wheat and rapeseed from October.
The monsoon was 88 percent of the average in 2014 and cut grains output by 4.7 percent in the crop year to June 2015. Output could fall about 3 percent this year, said D.H. Pai Panandiker, president of non-profit organization RPG Foundation.
In 2009 which saw the worst drought in nearly three decades, rains were 22 percent below the average of 50 years since 1951. It had forced India to import large quantities of sugar.
Weak rains this year could lead to imports of cooking oil, though India has sufficient stocks of wheat, rice and sugar.
(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Greg Mahlich and Louise Heavens)