26 people killed in early monsoon

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Heavy rains lashed parts of north India Monday, resulting in the deaths of at least 26 people, as the annual monsoon covered the country nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, officials said.

Surprise showers struck the capital New Delhi over the weekend, flooding the arrival halls in the international and domestic airports and leading to traffic jams in some parts of the city.

More than two dozen people lost their lives due to record downpours in Uttarakhand state, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, a local official said.

“Twenty-six people have died and more than 50 persons are missing, due to flooding, landslides and building collapses caused by heavy rain,” Piyush Rautela, director of Uttarakhand’s disaster management centre, said.

Three members of a single family, including a boy died when their house collapsed, crushing them in the state capital Dehradun, Rautela told AFP.

“Dehradun received a record 220 millimetres (8.7 inches) of rain in a 24-hour-period yesterday. It has been raining non-stop since Saturday morning,” Rautela said.

Several houses were swept away as water flooded parts of Uttarakhand, burying people under debris, he said.

“We fear that we will find many more bodies since so many people have been reported missing.”

River water levels are continuing to rise across the state, clogging roads and leaving hundreds of pilgrims stranded on their way to visit Hindu shrines, he added.

Four people died and five others are feared dead due to landslides in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, a local police official told AFP by telephone.

“A family of five, including three children were buried alive when boulders fell on their house in Chagaon village of Kinnaur,” G.Shiva, the police chief of Kinnaur district, said.

“The family was asleep… Rescue teams are on their way to the spot, but villagers say there is only a minimal chance of anybody surviving,” he said.

A few villages close to the Tibet border have also seen unseasonal snowfall, leaving dozens of shepherds and thousands of sheep stranded, a village headman told AFP.

The rains also caused traffic snarls and delays in train services in India’s financial capital Mumbai.

“This is the first time that the rains have covered the country so early. Before this, the earliest was on June 21, 1960,” B.P. Yadav, director of the India Meteorological Department told the Hindustan Times newspaper.

The early onset of the annual monsoon has boosted hopes for the country’s farming sector and its slowing economy.

The rains that lash the subcontinent from June to September are dubbed the “economic lifeline” of India, one of the world’s leading producers of rice, sugar, wheat and cotton.

The weather department has forecast India will receive normal rains this year, raising prospects of a stronger performance by Asia’s third-largest economy.

Last year India got below-normal rain in the first half of the wet season. The rains picked up in some areas later, but large areas of west and south India did not benefit.

The monsoon will be crucial for parts of Maharashtra state, India’s biggest sugar-producer, which have been reeling from the worst drought in over four decades.

Agriculture contributes about 15 percent to gross domestic product but the livelihood of hundreds of millions of Indians living in rural areas depends on the farming sector.

A good monsoon is also vital for the ruling Congress party ahead of elections due in 2014 as it struggles to kickstart growth in the country of 1.2 billion people.

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