The last few days have seen a sudden spike in the prices of one of the most essential of vegetables - onion. Prices are hovering in the range of Rs. 70-80 per kg. Slicing onion can bring tears to one's eyes. Now the prices are having the same effect. The government at the centre looks helpless and quite oblivious to the extra strain people are facing due to the shooting onion prices. Traders hope that new crops from states like Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra and a tentative ban on exports may soon bring down the price of onions.
Last year greater parts of Maharashtra faced a drought situation and this year many parts of India are experiencing excessive rainfall. Price rise of onions are being attributed to these reasons. But the fundamental question remains: is it just the weather that is responsible for this dizzying flight or there are other factors that contributed to this burden on the common man?
- India is the second largest producer of onions in the world. It produces about 20% of the world onion yield.
- Maharashtra - in India, is the highest producer of onions. It produces about 32% of the total yield, followed by Karnataka that produces 15% and Madhya Pradesh that produces 13%.
- Lasalgaon in Nashik district of Maharashtra is recognised as the biggest wholesale onion market in Asia. Hence, what happens there affects prices in many places.
Wholesale prices in Maharashtra have come down but retail prices have not. This is a clear pointer to hoarding by middle-men. Hence, the governments neither in Maharashtra nor at the Centre can escape from the fact that there has been hoarding.
It is now known to all Indians that the UPA II government spends most of its time either covering scams or indulging in them. The common man feels that they have very little time left for governance and understanding the woes of the country. There is a total disconnect with the people.
According to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) cited by the Hindustan Times, farmers hardly make Rs 5 to Rs 8 a kg, with the wholesaler adding 10-15% and the retailer gaining the most with a mark-up of 20-25%.
The election in 1980 came to be known as the 'onion' election - that brought down the Janata Dal government at the Centre and paved the way for the return of Indira Gandhi. Onion prices now could sound the death knell for the UPA II government and the elections to follow could again be called "onion" elections.
A Planning Commission member says, "Onion is the only way inflation is understood by ordinary people. To afford or not afford onion is how poverty is understood across the country. A callous government has turned deaf and the Opposition thinks it has enough to bring it back to power. The humble onion could have deep fried both."
Politics of Onion Price Rise
- That 'onions' can be a hot issue for the polls is amply clear by the populist move by the BJP to sell onions for Rs 25 a kg at various markets in New Delhi. "Inaction" by the Central government and the "helpless" disposition it is exuding not only makes the ground stickier for them, but also shows the government in poor light.
- An MP from West Bengal informed the Rajya Sabha that the West Bengal government had started taking measures as early as June this year, and has been able to keep onion prices in check now that the crisis has hit the people.
- Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is on record to have told PTI last July that if export is banned, India's image as a global supplier of farm produce would be hit. Image at the cost of hurting the people, Mr. Minister? What logic!
Creative ways are also being devised to help ease this burden on the common man.
- In Jamshedpur, onion is being given free with the purchase of truck and car tyres.
- A sari shop in Kolkata is giving half a kg of onion with every purchase over Rs 500.
- The wry humor that the onion prices have generated has even led to innovative ideas like gifting onions on special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.
Measures taken by West Bengal government to control onion prices
- The government of West Bengal has taken measures not only to curb onion price but to increase monsoon cultivation of onion so that supply increases by Durga Puja.
- Seeds have been distributed to farmers for the additional cultivation of onions in 1,000 hectares.
- After prices crossed Rs 60 a kg in Kolkata, the West Bengal government decided to sell onions through its mobile fair price shops across the city at Rs 35 a kg. That is perhaps the lowest price any state government is offering its people.
- The government has further decided to sell ginger clubbed with onions as the price of ginger is on the rise too.
Initiatives by other state governments
- Odisha in the last few days has opened a hundred counters selling onions at Rs 46 a kg across the state after onion prices touched Rs 60 a kg.
- In Delhi, after onion prices touched Rs 80 a kg, the chief minister made an urgent appeal to Sharad Pawar to cut down on onion export. Delhi has mobile vans and outlets like Mother Dairy selling onion at a reasonable price.
- With this backdrop, the idea of a Federal Front can only gain popularity and relevance.
- It is the chief ministers in their respective states that are fighting the price war. If the regional parties come together as a Federal Front, they would have a better feel of the pulse, the problems and the concerns of the people.
- More importantly, with this experience at fire-fighting state governments would definitely be more effective than a group of politicians - with neither knowledge nor will to ease the problems of the common man, ruling at the Centre.
As it is amply clear by the above measures, state governments are trying to keep the price of onions in check whilst the Centre chooses to turn a blind eye to the problem in the hopes of a bumper yield after the monsoons, leaving the entire process to chance instead of taking proactive measures in this time of crisis.