By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's monsoon rains were 6 percent above average in the past week, the weather office said on Thursday, the first time they have been heavier than normal in the current rainy season that began in June, in what is turning out to be a drought year.
The rains, vital for the 55 percent of Indian farmland without irrigation, are still 12 percent short of average and threaten cereal and pulses production as drought continues in some areas of west and south India.
In the previous week, rainfall was 2 percent below average, which is still within a normal range, as the monsoon revived in rice, cane and soybean growing areas of the world's leading food consumer and producer.
The revival has given the government a breathing space and allowed it to postpone a drought summit meeting to next week.
India, whose huge land mass contains nearly all climates and soil types, last faced widespread drought in 2009 when the June-to-September monsoon rains were 22 percent below average and it had to import sugar, pushing global prices to 30-year highs.
"Rains are expected to be widespread over cane areas of north India and soybean growing areas of central parts during the next week," said a weather official who did not wish to be named.
The rest of the monsoon rains are unlikely to be influenced by the El Nino phenomenon, India's farm secretary said on Wednesday, promising late summer rains for crops such as rice, soybean, cane and cotton during their vegetative growth.
"Late revival will also improve the prospects of winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed," said B.C. Barah, a farm economist.
The revival could delay the retreat of the monsoon season which usually begins from mid-September, improving soil moistures before the winter planting season.
India has suffered its second drought in just four years this season, and has had to take steps to cut irrigation costs and increase fodder supplies for livestock farmers.
The drought is still expected to reduce cereal and pulses production, cutting supplies of animal feeds and also increasing imports of pulses which are an important protein source for the poor in the world's second most populous country.
But last week, rains were heavier than average over the drought-hit areas of northwest and south India, easing output concerns in crops such as rice and cotton. The desert state of Rajasthan in the north also received heavy rains.
Widespread rains over the hill areas of north India are expected to improve water levels in reservoirs.
At this stage, the distribution of rains is more important than quantity as crops are in the growing stage and need only rains at regular intervals.
Rains below 90 percent of long-term averages in the entire season are considered "deficient", or a drought in layman's terms.
(Editing by Jo Winterbottom; editing by Jason Neely)