By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Monsoon rains reached India's southern coast a few days later than usual on Friday, offering relief to farmers eagerly waiting for the start of the wet season that is crucial for their summer crops.
But the slight delay in the monsoon's onset is unlikely to have a major impact on sowing of rice, pulses and cotton that has started in many growing areas of northwest and southern India, taking advantage of pre-monsoon showers.
The formation of a possible El Nino weather phenomenon, which can cause drought in South Asia, is only expected to have an impact later in the four-month rainy season.
"We don't foresee any El Nino impact in the first month of the monsoon season," said B.P. Yadav, head of the National Weather Forecasting Centre at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi.
Last month, the IMD forecast a patchy monsoon season with a high chance of El Nino. [ID:nL3N0NG3LO] Weather officials on Friday confirmed the monsoon's onset - a decision that takes into account rainfall measured at weather stations in the southern state of Kerala and westerly wind speeds.
Rainfall was around 40 percent below average across India in the first week of the season. Progress northwards of the annual rains is expected to be slow and they are unlikely to cover half the nation by the first half of June.
Farmers have heeded the advice issued by the newly elected government to sow crops early this year to take advantage of pre-monsoon showers. They were also advised to use short duration seeds of cotton, pulses, corn and soybeans.
FIVE DAYS LATE
In 2013 the monsoon hit Kerala on June 1, two days ahead of the official forecast and in line with the long-term average. The season brought above-average rainfall across the country, resulting in a record grain harvest. Rains are vital to rejuvenate an economy battling its longest economic slowdown since the 1980s and to cool inflation that has averaged nearly 10 percent for the past two years. The farm sector accounts for 14 percent of India's nearly $2 trillion economy, with two-thirds of its 1.2 billion population living in rural areas. Half of India's farmland still lacks access to irrigation. The country plans to expand irrigation coverage by at least a tenth by 2017 to cut its dependence on the seasonal rains. Poor rains could hit summer crops such as rice, soybean, corn and cotton, raising food prices and pressuring economic growth that has nearly halved to below 5 percent in the past two years. India's weather office had forecast the monsoon would arrive over Kerala on June 5, give or take four days. The chance of dry spells in this year's monsoon is 40-45 percent compared to the usual 33 percent, said Andrew Colman, senior climate scientist at the UK Met Office. Southern India, mainly parts of rice-growing areas of Andhra Pradesh, and cane areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, received plenty of rains in May, providing a cushion against any delay in progress of the wind-borne monsoon rains towards the mainland. Farm Commissioner J.S. Sandhu said contingency plans have been in place for around 500 drought-prone districts, if the monsoon fails to arrive on time.
The healthy showers prior to the monsoon season raised water levels in the country's reservoirs to nearly half-way above normal, he added.
Usually, the monsoon covers half of India by mid-June, and engulfs its entire landmass by mid-July.
(Editing by Douglas Busvine and Joseph Radford)