Mumbai: India’s monsoon, the main source of irrigation for the nation’s 235 million farmers, was 27% below average last month, squashing expectations of a recovery in crop yields, a weather bureau official said.

Bleak outlook: Weak monsoon rains may force India to depend on imports to meet almost one-third of its sugar demand next year. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

The nation got 189.9mm of rain in August compared with the average 262mm recorded between 1941 and 1990, Surinder Kaur, director at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), said from New Delhi on Tuesday. The agency forecast on 10 August rains will be 90% of the average for the month.

The weakest monsoon in at least seven years caused drought in 278 of India’s 626 districts this year, damaging crops including sugar cane, rice and oilseeds. Sugar prices in New York reached a 28-year high on Tuesday on speculation India will boost imports to bridge a shortfall in local supplies.

“Any significant shortfall in rain could hit India’s agricultural growth, affecting rural demand, and hence, overall private consumption," Jyoti Narasimhan, research director for India at Global Insight Inc. in Lexington, Massachusetts, said in an emailed statement.

India, the world’s biggest sugar consumer, may depend on imports to meet almost one-third of its demand next year, Shree Renuka Sugars Ltd managing director Narendra Murkumbi told reporters in New Delhi.

India, the world’s second biggest producer of the sweetener, became a net buyer this year for the first time since the 2005-06 season. The nation’s sugar output is set to decline 44% to 14.8 million tonnes this year after growers shifted to the more profitable grains and oilseeds, according to the Indian Sugar Mills Association.

Rains in the season that began on 1 June were 23% below the 50-year average as of Monday, the weather bureau’s Kaur said. The nation got 551.6mm of rain in the June- August period, compared with the average of 717.6mm, she said.

The rain deficit in northwest India, the country’s grain-bowl and biggest sugar cane producer, narrowed to 38% from 40% on 26 August. The shortfall in the central states was 17% as of Monday, Kaur said.