By Ratnajyoti Dutta
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Monsoon rains should continue to be weaker than average again next week, suggesting an early end to the season, weather officials said on Thursday, but with summer crops well established, there should be little impact on harvests.
The monsoon, crucial for the 55 percent of Indian farmland that does not have irrigation, brought the heaviest rains in nearly two decades during its first half this year, fanning hopes for bumper harvests.
Rainfall was 30 percent below average in the week to September 4, compared to a shortfall of 29 percent the previous week, data from the weather office showed.
"The process of monsoon withdrawal has been initiated in the northwest," said an official of the weather office who declined to be identified, as he is not authorised to speak to the media. But further checks were needed before any formal withdrawal announcement, he added.
India's monsoon rains usually start retreating from the country's west by mid-September, but could lift earlier this year. Summer crops do not need heavy rain at this stage of growth, but just sporadic downpours to aid the maturing process.
"Signs of the withdrawal of the monsoon are now visible in the grain bowl of northwest India," said R.S. Seshadri, director at Tilda Riceland, a rice exporter based in Delhi.
Weekly monsoon graphic: http://link.reuters.com/kac32v
For rainfall distribution: http://link.reuters.com/rab69n
Seshadri said a dry spell over rice-growing areas in Punjab and Haryana would help the maturing process and improve output prospects for the South Asian country's main food crop.
The weather official said rains would recede throughout India next week, except for some parts of the northeast where they have been poor so far.
A retreat of the rains slightly earlier than expected is also unlikely to pose major problems for sowing of winter crops such as wheat and rapeseed, since these are mainly planted in irrigated areas and reservoirs there are brimming.
Ample rains from the beginning of the monsoon in June raised prospects for bumper harvests and higher rural incomes in the world's second most populous country, which could improve sales of retail items, from cars to freezers, and aid rural growth.
India, one of the world's biggest producers and consumers of farm commodities, is heavily reliant on the annual monsoon for its huge harvests of rice, sugar and cash crops like cotton.
(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Clarence Fernandez)