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Indian crop sowing tumbles

NEW DELHI, Aug 11 – India\’s finance minister said on Tuesday that weak monsoon rains this year would mean that the sowing of summer crops would fall by 20 percent.

However Pranab Mukherjee sought to avert fears that the sharp drop would cause food shortages, saying the country had coped with far worse droughts.

The monsoon, which sweeps across the subcontinent from June to September, is expected to be 87 percent of the long-term average, according to the latest forecast.

Mukherjee said there was "no point in pressing the panic button" over the fall in sowing in India, where 700 million people live in the countryside.

"We shall have to wait and watch the (monsoon) performance for the entire period," he said. "What will happen, we have to accept."

The food ministry earlier this week said nearly 80 percent of the country was under the threat of drought due to the poor performance of the ongoing monsoon.

Rice, a key staple, and sugar has been among the worst-hit crops.

The monsoon is vital to agricultural output in India, one of the world\’s top producers of rice, wheat and sugar, where just 40 percent of arable land is irrigated.

Despite the lack of rain, Mukherjee said he was sticking to the central Reserve Bank of India\’s forecast of six percent-plus growth for the fiscal year to March 2010.

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The economy grew by 6.7 percent last year, down from nine percent a year earlier.

But the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India forecast growth could be as low as 4.7 percent this year if the monsoon turned out to be "severely deficient."

A consumer affairs ministry report said prices of staples such as sugar, pulses, groundnut oil and potatoes had surged by up to nearly a third since the start of the monsoon.

Prices have risen steadily as hopes for rain in key growing states have faded, the report said.

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