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Hail threatens Indian farmers with fourth straight crop loss

NEW DELHI - Hail and rain have damaged ripening wheat, chickpea and rapeseed in India's key farm belts, potentially cutting output and exposing millions of farmers to a fourth crop loss in a row.

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NEW DELHI - Hail and rain have damaged ripening wheat, chickpea and rapeseed in India's key farm belts, potentially cutting output and exposing millions of farmers to a fourth crop loss in a row.

Torrential rains at the weekend lashed Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, states which account for the bulk of wheat output in India, the world's biggest producer after China, flattening crops and flooding farms.

Lower crop yields will cut India's wheat output for the second straight year, depleting stocks at state warehouses. Any fall in chickpea and rapeseed production will force New Delhi to step up imports of pulses, or lentils, and vegetable oil.

"It is a little early for us to know the exact extent of the damage but initial reports suggest that wheat production could drop by 5 to 7 percent," R. K. Gupta, chief of state-run Directorate of Wheat Research, told Reuters by phone on Monday from the northern city of Karnal, a wheat belt.

If weather conditions remain favorable now, farmers will be able to salvage crops by draining water from their fields, Gupta said.

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But the loss could be as high as 7 to 8 percent if hail and heavy rains return, warned Gupta.

The weather office has forecast rains from Wednesday.

Indian farmers sow wheat in October and November, with harvests from end of March and April. Repeated squalls around the same time last year hit output, leaving farmers in penury and driving some to suicide.

After two straight droughts in India, where more than half of farmlands lack irrigation, farmers complain of mounting debts as lower food prices in India and a rout in the global commodity market have eroded incomes.

"After last year's untimely rains, most of us have had a sense of deja vu but our worst fears have come true now. In fact most of us haven't received compensation from the government for the loss that we suffered in February and March last year," said Dharmendra Kumar, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh.

Last month the farm ministry forecast India's 2016 wheat output at 93.82 million tonnes, lower than a 94.75 million tonne target, but higher than last year's 86.53 million tonnes.

A farm ministry official said the government is yet to assess the damage. 

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