By Rajendra Jadhav and Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) -India is likely to receive a normal amount of monsoon rain in 2023 despite the likely emergence of the El Nino weather phenomenon, the state-run weather office said on Friday, the fifth year of normal or above-normal summer rain.
The monsoon is the lifeblood of the country's $3 trillion economy, Asia's third-largest, and delivers nearly 70% of the rain it needs to water farms and recharge reservoirs and aquifers. Nearly half of India's farmland doesn't have irrigation cover and depends on the annual June-September rains to grow a number of crops.
The rains, which usually lash the southern tip of Kerala state around June 1 and retreat by September, are expected to total 96% of the long-term average this year, D. S. Pai, a senior official at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), told reporters on Friday.
The IMD defines average, or normal, rainfall as ranging between 96% and 104% of the 50-year average of 87 cm (35 inches) for the four-month season.
A spell of good rains could lift farm and wider economic growth and help bring down food price inflation, which jumped in recent months and prompted the central bank to raise lending rates.
Ample farm production may also allow India to lift curbs imposed on sugar, wheat and rice exports. India is the world's second-biggest producer of wheat, rice and sugar and the biggest importer of palm oil, soyoil and sunflower oil.
However, rainfall totals for June are likely to be below average as the onset of the southwest monsoon over Kerala will probably be delayed to June 4 from the typical June 1 start, Pai said.
"A slightly late onset and below normal rainfall in June 2023 can be mitigated by healthy reservoir levels," said Aditi Nayar, chief economist at ICRA Ltd, the Indian unit of Moody's Investors Service.
A normal distribution of rainfall in July would be critical to ensure the timely sowing of summer crops, she said.
"The El Nino weather pattern is currently neutral, but there is a high probability for the development of El Nino during the monsoon season," Pai said.
The El Nino is a weather phenomenon caused by a warming of the central Pacific Ocean waters off South America that typically results in hot and dry weather in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
In the past, India has experienced below-average rainfall during most El Nino years, sometimes leading to severe droughts that destroyed crops and forced authorities to limit the export of some grains.
The development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) could offset the impact of El Nino, Pai said.
The IOD is characterised by higher sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean and southwesterly winds that bring rain to the Indian sub-continent.
Overall monsoon rains over the entire country are expected to be normal during the season, but summer rains are "most likely to be" below normal over the north-western parts of the country, he said.
Rice, cotton and soybean are some of the major crops that farmers grow in India's north-western region.
(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav and Mayank Bhardwaj; Additional reporting by Chris Thomas; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Christian Schmollinger and Philippa Fletcher)