NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's annual monsoon rains have covered almost half of the country, showing signs of a pick-up after falling short in the first 15 days of the season, weather officials said on Monday.
The rebound eases concerns about the planting of summer-sown crops such as rice, corn, cane, cotton and soybean in a country that is a leading producer and consumer.
India's June-September monsoon rains are vital for agriculture and economic growth, because irrigation covers only 45 percent of farmland. The farm sector accounts for about 15 percent of the country's nearly $2 trillion economy, Asia's third-biggest.
"Monsoon rains have strengthened from Sunday and have nearly covered half of the country," S.C. Bhan, a director at state-run India Meteorological Department, told Reuters.
Monsoon started at the southern Kerala coast on June 5. Rains have covered tea, coffee, rubber, cane and corn areas of southern India and oilseed, cotton and cane areas of western India.
Last year, rains arrived on May 29, two days ahead of the normal date, but covered half of the country four days later than the usual date of June 15.
"The monsoon season is often marked by periodic weak phases," Bhan said, referring to the slow progress in the first two weeks of the season.
In the week to June 13, rains were 50 percent below average.
Now, rains have entered the main rice areas of eastern India and some oilseeds areas of south-western India.
Farmers will start planting soy, the main summer oilseed crop, from next week when showers reach the biggest producing state of Madhya Pradesh, said Rajesh Agrawal, executive committee member of the Soybean Processors Association of India.
Higher soybean output could help India, the world's top vegetable oil buyer, to cut its imports, which amount to almost half its annual vegetable oil consumption of about 16 million tonnes.
The weather office has forecast average rains in 2012, the third drought-free year in a row.
Good monsoon rains and economic growth will help Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government, which is facing flak for a slowing economy.
The annual growth rate for the quarter to March was at the weakest pace in nine years at 5.3 percent, sparking calls for action to stimulate an economy that Standard & Poor's says could be the first BRIC nation to lose its investment-level credit rating.
Many analysts expected India to cut interest rates to spur growth, but the Reserve Bank of India on Monday left the rate unchanged to avoid any inflationary pressure.
(Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj and Jane Baird)