Onion price rise and the politics around it
The palpable worry of the political class in India with respect to the onion prices has a history. The fuss around onions is more political than economic.
The festival season is fast approaching and the retail prices of onion continue to remain around Rs 80 per kg in the national capital and other parts of the country. The central government seems to have sprung to action to control the escalating onion prices.
In a hurriedly called press conference on Thursday, Ramvilas Paswan, union minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution announced that a team of two joint secretary-level officers has been sent to Maharashtra to talk to the farmers, traders, and transporters to assess the availability of onions and to persuade them to bring more onions to the market.
He also said that states would be supplied onions as per their need as conveyed to the secretary. Why is the government so jittery about the onion prices? The reason is understandable.
Experts say the increase in the prices of onions is a seasonal phenomenon, but this time the situation is acute. This is because of the elections that will take place in October. One of the states which is going to the polls is Maharashtra, the hub of onion farming in India. Lasalgaon in Maharashtra is considered the largest onion mandi (market) in the country. India is the second-largest producer of onion in the world after China. Around 10% of the production every year is exported.
“The extended rainfall has spoiled the onion crop in most parts of the country. There is no real way to combat the situation as imports would result in further hike in the cost. Government has no other way but to wait for the next cycle of crop to come to market which will happen by late November,” Agri-market expert Vijay Sardana told Asiaville.
Meanwhile, the government must be seen to be doing something. All of these efforts are directed towards pacifying the consumer. Control on consumption is the only way out to deal with the shortfall currently, he adds.
The palpable worry of the political class in India with respect to the onion prices has a history. The fuss around onions is more political than economic. The first mention of onions in Indian politics dates back to the year 1980 when Indira Gandhi, in her come-back election after the post-emergency debacle, made the price rise of onion as the core issue to trump the ruling alliance led by Chaudhary Charan Singh. Congress won the election emphatically.
Onion again became a major political issue in the 1998 assembly elections in Delhi when the first ever BJP government in the NCT of Delhi was dethroned by the Congress on the issue of mounting onion prices. Chief Minister Madanlal Khurana of BJP after his defeat famously said, “it seems the new metric for good governance in the country is the price of onions”.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was the first to figure out the looming onion scarcity. As early as the last week of August, he started attacking the Union government for failing to control hoarding and speculation leading to the current price rise. He also promised that his government will supply onions to the masses at a “reasonable price”. With impending Delhi assembly polls being speculated to be held with Jharkhand polls in the month of December, the government fielded its consumer affairs minister to control any further damage.
“It is more or less an annual affair in north India. Every year towards the Deepawali festival time, restaurants and retailers start hoarding the supply of onion but this time the heavy rains have further worsened the situation. The apathy is that the government is not interested to look for a permanent solution to the problem by supplementing cold storage chains and strengthening the market procurement mechanism. Whatever we see as announcement to control onion prices today are mostly political posturing,” Pravash Pradhan, editor of Agripost told Asiaville.
Onions are a staple in the North Indian diet. Apart from being used in curries, it is also consumed raw as a salad. Like garlic, it is valued for its therapeutic value. Apart from the dietary value of onion, what’s more worrying for the ruling BJP in the centre is that it is traditionally known as a business friendly regime with the retailers and wholesalers in the urban areas forming its major vote bank. Although, everyone knows that the onion price rise is a temporary seasonal phenomenon, what the government is worried about is the permanent damage to its poll prospects in the upcoming assembly and other by-polls.