By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's monsoon looks a week or so ahead of schedule as next week's rains are again expected to be below average, but key summer crops have already had ample rainfall and should help to produce bumper harvests.
The government is relying on higher farm output to help ease inflation and boost agricultural growth in one of the world's biggest food consumers and producers.
Rainfall was 25 percent below average in the week ending September 18 compared with a 37 percent shortage the previous week, the weather office's latest data showed on Thursday.
The monsoon has already receded from the grain basket area of northwest India and rains would further slacken next week in other parts of the country, weather officials said.
Rains will largely be confined to the central and southern parts of India next week, said B.P. Yadav, director of the state-run India Meteorological Department.
But rains at the tail end of the season will boost yields of rice, sugar cane, soybean and cotton, and also help growers cut their irrigation costs further.
The monsoon, vital for the 55 percent of farmland in India that does not have irrigation, usually starts retreating from western Rajasthan state by mid-September. This year, it started to fall back from September 9.
Patches of heavy rains recently have prompted some fears of vegetable crop damage in south, central and western India and stalled planting of onions, triggering hefty price rises that helped push food inflation to 18 percent in August, a three-year high.
India, one of the world's biggest producers and consumers of an array of farm commodities, heavily relies on annual monsoon rains to produce rice, corn, sugar, oilseeds and cotton.
Bountiful rains are expected to accelerate farm production growth.
"More rains will help double farm growth, as last year's drought-hit areas of southern and western India have received ample monsoon splash this year," said Prasoon Mathur, senior analyst at New Delhi-based Religare Commodities.
C. Rangarajan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's economic adviser, has forecast 4.8 percent farm growth in agricultural and allied activities in the current fiscal year to March.
The sector grew 1.8 percent in 2012/13, affected by poor rains that had caused droughts in six states, though the overall monsoon season in 2012 evaded a widespread drought.
Mathur said food prices would also start falling from next month when harvests reach the market.
Ample rains will lead to good soil moisture, raising prospects for higher output of winter-sown crops such as wheat and rapeseed.
Since June 1, when the four-month monsoon season began, rains have been 4 percent above average.
(Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Keiron Henderson)