India in the grip of an onion crisis for the second time in 3 months

In a photo taken on Dec 9, 2019, Aam Aadmi Party workers hold garlands of onions as they burn an effigy representing inflation during a protest against the spiralling prices of onions in the country. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Indians are grappling with a crisis involving the production of onions for the second time in three months.

Prices of the staple in Indian cooking have skyrocketed with a kilo of it costing 160 rupees (S$3) in some cities. Last year, they were going for 10 rupees to 20 rupees.

Household budgets are being stretched, stampedes have been reported in places where subsidised onions are being made available, stocks are being hijacked and restaurants are turning to cabbages.

Protests have been reported, with those attending donning onion garlands. The issue is a hot topic on social media, where jokes abound.

"What rupee could not do, our Indian onion did #OnionPriceRise... Indian #Onion is now 120 rupees against weak dollar 70 rupees," said one user on Twitter, where a trending topic has been the price rise.

In a video that has gone viral, an auto-rickshaw driver accepts payment from customers in onions instead of cash.

Yet behind the mirth, Indians are feeling the pinch.

Mr Nand Lal, a food vendor in Delhi, said that he had reduced but not stopped buying onions for home as well as his business.

But he has admitted to cutting back on onions in his cooking.

"I wonder if it is necessary to eat such expensive food? We get onions, but a lesser amount. We get 100 grams or 200 grams for the house," he said. "One kilo of onions is out of my reach," he added.

High onion prices can be costly, politically. In 1998, a government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi was booted out of office because state elections coincided with a rise in onion prices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in no danger of being toppled, but the onion prices have added to his government's economic troubles.

India's economy expanded at its slowest, at 4.5 per cent, in the July-September quarter, the slowest in six quarters, while retail inflation has been going up due to the high prices of vegetables.

It touched a year-and-a-half high of 4.62 per cent in October.

Unseasonal rains, including a delay in the arrival of the monsoons followed by heavy rainfall, destroyed onion crops in key producing states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka.

Political analyst Amulya Ganguli said: "The onion is part of the many economic difficulties of the government and it gives a handle to the opposition to attack the ruling party.

"The common person may not understand the nuances of other issues, including slowing economic growth, but will be bothered about high prices of onions."

The government has said that the shortfall in stocks is 1.8 million tonnes, and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently listed all the actions taken by the government to deal with the problem.

This included importing onions from Turkey and Egypt, halting exports, cracking down on hoarders and reducing the amount that retailers and wholesalers can store. Retailers can now store only two tonnes, down from five, for instance.

The measures are expected to make an impact in the coming weeks.

Some farmers, in the meantime, are harvesting a month earlier than usual.

"The present condition is that no one has a stock of onions. New crop has been planted and farmers are harvesting it one month early," said Mr Laxman Wange, a farmer from Maharashtra and national vice-president of the Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh farmer organisation.

India's onion woes have also spilled over into neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal.

In Nepal, which is dependent on India for its supplies, prices of onions have gone up 300 per cent.

Reports say it is turning to imports from China, among other places.

Bangladesh, where prices have also climbed, is importing onions from Pakistan for the first time in 15 years.

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