Indian farmers ramp up rice acres amid domestic supply concerns

Farm labourers plant rice saplings in a field on outskirts of Ahmedabad

By Mayank Bhardwaj

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian farmers have planted 38.4 million hectares (94.8 million acres) with rice, up 4.3% on the same period last year, farm ministry data showed on Friday, as a revival in July monsoon rains and higher prices encouraged growers to boost acreage.

Higher rice planting could alleviate supply concerns in the world's second biggest producer of the grain.

Last month, India surprised buyers by imposing a ban on the export of widely consumed non-basmati white rice, following a ban on broken rice exports last year.

New Delhi's decision to ban overseas shipments of its largest rice export category would be likely to roughly halve shipments by the world's largest exporter of the grain.

Millions of India's growers start planting summer crops such as rice, corn, cotton, soybeans, sugarcane and peanuts from June 1, when monsoon rains typically begin lashing India. The monsoon is critical as nearly half of India's farmland lacks irrigation.

For June and July together, India's monsoon rains were 5% above average, falling 10% below normal in June but rebounding to 13% above average in July.

But summer rains turned patchy again this month, dragging down overall monsoon rains to 7% below average since the season began on June 1. The weather office defines average, or normal, rainfall as between 96% and 104% of a 50-year average of 87 cm (35 inches) for the four-month season.

Scant rainfall is likely to persist across large areas, indicating that India is heading for its driest August in more than a century.

Farmers had planted 18.8 million hectares with oilseeds, including soybeans, by Friday, against 19 million hectares a year earlier.

Corn was planted on 8.2 million hectares, up from 8 million hectares a year earlier. The cotton area was also slightly smaller at 12.2 million hectares.

The Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers' Welfare keeps updating the provisional sowing figures as it gathers more information from the state governments.

The planting figures are also subject to revision depending on progress of the June-September monsoon season.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by David Gregorio)