The onion scare is here yet again to haunt the common man and governments alike, as prices spiral to a high of up to Rs 200 per kg. There’s no relief in sight in the near term, as onion imports will take time till January to reach retail markets. Even then, prices will continue to be higher than normal, as imported onions have been billed at around Rs 55 per kg. If we add handling and transportation charges, consumers will end up paying anywhere between Rs 65-75 per kg for the imported onions. That’s still quite high, but almost half of the current retail price of onions.
What has created onion shortage?
Normally, we don’t see a shortage of onions, as India is the second largest producer of onion in the world. The largest producer is China, which exports a significant percentage of its overall onion production. Onion shortage in India is usually created due to unseasonal rains in onion producing states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, MP and AP. These together contribute more than 50% of the total onion production in the country.
The shortage is further compounded, as the government machinery does not take proactive measures to check onion price rise. There’s also the problem of hoarders and black marketers, who create artificial shortage to book heavy profits from high demand and low supply situation. Although the government is aware of such illegal activities, it is logistically impossible to identify and take action against all those involved.
Onions are favorite weapons of politicians
If we look at history, we can see that rise in onion prices have played a key role in politics. Onion prices have such a strong influence on the general population that governments have been toppled using onion price rise as a political agenda. Let’s take a look at some examples from the past where rise in onion prices had led to major political changes.
1980: At the time of 1980 Lok Sabha elections, prices of onions had spiraled. Indira Gandhi used it as a political agenda and spread the message that the ruling government led by Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh does not care for the basic needs of the common man. The idea clicked with the masses and Congress was able to win 67% of the Lok Sabha seats.
1998: State elections in Delhi and Rajasthan in 1998 were said to be hugely influenced by rising onion prices at that time. The opposition won the elections after getting public support against the government’s inability to check the rise in onion prices.
Why onion is so important in India?
Onions are a staple food item for the vast majority of Indians. We have it in most of our meals, either in raw form, as a seasoning or vegetable or as part of the quintessential gravy. Without onions, it would be very difficult to achieve the usual taste of our meals. An average family consumes several kilograms of onions every month, which is why rise in onion prices is a matter of grave concern for the common man. Normal prices of onions are in the range of Rs 20-30 per kg, so when prices hit 50+ or 100+, it starts to affect the monthly budget.
Onion has no alternative
Another thing is that there is no alternative for onions in terms of its unique taste and flavor. For other food items such as lentils, grains, fruits and vegetables, etc., one can choose alternatives. But no such options are available for onions.
Onion health benefits
If you ask nutritionists, they will tell you about the various health benefits of onions. For example, onions are loaded with various minerals and antioxidants and are known to improve digestion, regulate blood sugar, boost heart health and fight harmful pathogens. But nutritionists will also tell you that onions do not contain any special nutrients that you cannot get from other food sources. So, if you don’t consume onions for some time or reduce your consumption, it is unlikely to have any effect on your health.
Will current onion shortage impact government?
Elections are currently ongoing in Jharkhand, so rise in onion prices may have an impact in that state. Delhi will go to polls in February, but by then it is expected that onion prices would come under control. Both state and central governments have placed orders for onion imports and a ban has also been imposed on onion exports. Moreover, the government is aggressively checking on any illegal activities by onions wholesalers and traders.
Experts say that people are now more aware about the politics over onions and less likely to get swayed by it. With access to social media and internet, people now know how politicians play their dirty games over onions.
Wholesale prices of onions are already starting to come down in major onion markets such as Lasalgaon in Maharashtra. In the coming months, situation is expected to improve further and onion prizes will stabilize. On their part, people can use their stock of onions more efficiently and avoid wastage. The government also needs to bring in new rules and policies, so that such crisis-like situations can be avoided in the future.