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Drought to cut sugar output in Tamil Nadu

By Rajendra Jadhav

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Sugar output in Tamil Nadu, one of India's main sugar producing states, is likely to fall by more than a third in the new season beginning October, hit by the worst drought in more than a century.

Tamil Nadu, India's fourth biggest sugar producer, is likely produce 600,000 tonnes in the 2017/18 season, down from around 1 million tonnes in the current season to September 2017, M. Manickam, executive chairman of Sakthi Sugars, said.

Tamil Nadu's sugar mills produced 1.36 million tonnes of sugar in 2015/16.

The overall situation is very grim, Manickam said. Sakthi Sugars is one of India's largest sugar producers with three plants in Tamil Nadu, according to its website.

The drought has also hit other parts of southern India, forcing hundreds of farmers to travel to New Delhi to protest and seek government help.

Sugar producers from Tamil Nadu, hit by the drought and saddled with big debts, put live rats in their mouths and carried the skulls of farmers believed to have committed suicide at a New Delhi protest last week, calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to save them from starvation.

The farmers, protesting near parliament in New Delhi, suffered crop losses last year, and they had to take on more loans to survive.

India as a whole will produce 20.3 million tonnes of sugar in the year to September 2017, the Indian Sugar Mills Association said last month, 5 percent lower than a previous forecast.

In the last two years, back-to-back droughts have ravaged the cane crop in the western state of Maharashtra, the country's top sugar producer.

Although India received average monsoon rains last year, rainfall distribution was uneven, leaving parts of southern India parched.

The monsoon, which delivers 70 percent of India's annual rainfall, is critical for the country's farmers and their rice, cane, corn, cotton and soybean crops because nearly half of its farmland lacks irrigation.

The Indian government's weather office is due to issue its monsoon forecast this month but India could emerge unscathed from the El Nino weather pattern, K. J. Ramesh, director general of the India Meteorological Department, said.

Other than sugar, Tamil Nadu's cotton production in 2016/17 is likely to fall by 21 percent to 550,000 bales, according to the Cotton Association of India.

(Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Jane Merriman)