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Monsoon rains ebb to ease crop worries

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's monsoon rains have eased and are likely to continue the more measured pace next week, weather officials said on Thursday, bringing relief to summer crops that had faced the threat of damage from heavy downpours.

The rains may also pick up in the eastern part of the country which has had lower than average rainfall so far and needs more water to help finish planting of rice.

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. Rains so far in much of the country have been very heavy, helping sowing early on but unwelcome now when crops are at a delicate growing stage.

"Rainfall activities will ease over central, western and southern parts next week, but are expected to be heavy over the northeast and parts of north India," said D.S. Pai, the lead forecaster of the Indian weather office.

The rains were 1 percent below average in the week ending August 7, data from the weather office showed. They were 17 percent above normal in the first half of the June to September season.

For monsoon distribution: link.reuters.com/rab69n

Weekly rainfall graphic: link.reuters.com/kac32v

The monsoon, crucial for 55 percent of Indian farmland that does not have irrigation, was the heaviest in nearly two decades during the first half of the season with the fastest ever coverage of the country almost a month ahead of schedule.

The ample rains could mean higher rural incomes in the world's second most populous country, improving sales of everything from cars and gold to refrigerators. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has already said the monsoon could help agricultural growth and spur the overall economy.

Last year, the farm sector grew about 1.8 percent after six states, some of them major crop producers, were hit by severe drought.

Now initial plantings are over for most of the early sown crops, rains need to ease to give sufficient sunlight during their growth stage and allow weeding.

The monsoon eased mainly over central and southern regions in the past week, giving relief to planted crops like soybean, pulses and cotton whose yields were threatened by the high level of soil moisture.

"The overall status is still pretty good, but there shouldn't be continuous rains over soybean, pulses and cotton growing areas of central and western India," said J.S. Sandhu, the country's farm commissioner.

Sandhu said rice planting was overall satisfactory despite lagging in some eastern states like Bihar and Jharkhand, where rains have not yet brought enough water to the soil.

The heavy downpours have also pushed water levels in the main reservoirs of the country to more than double last year's levels, at 63 percent of capacity.

(Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Patrick Graham)