Pulses are fast matching up with onions in unpredictable price rise. Unlike onions, pulses are nutritionally important, and were once called the poor man's protein. If pulses go the onion way, the nation could face nutritional distress.
The onion knight helped Indira Gandhi wrest power back in 1980. That, at least, is how the legend of the onion goes. No, it wasn’t Ser Davos from the Game of Thrones, which was yet to be created. It was the swollen bulb of the lily family, which, while providing no essential nutrients to the human body, is the only vegetable that can rock governments in India.
At most times, the onion is a background artiste. It adds body and garnish to Indian dishes, and during hot summer months, helps prevent many a heatstroke. It’s such a regular fixture that the ordinary in India is referred to as aloo-pyaz (potatoes and onions). But once in a while, the onion comes to centre stage as its price peaks astronomically, sending the nation into dietary shock and politicians clinging to their chairs. Onions vanish from free salads and only the most honoured guest gets a truffle-like shaving of onions over his chole masala.
Onions don’t go slowly up the price gradient, they rocket; the thrifty housewife gets no time to stock up. On Monday, it was priced at Rs 20 a kilo, on Tuesday, it reached Rs 100, and then, whoosh, it was off the bhajiwala’s cart. A lucrative black market then emerges, as consumers hunt around for their daily onion fix, often paying a fortune for a bag of half-rotten bulbs. Why they can’t simply eliminate onion from their diet for some days is another of life’s unexplained mysteries. After all, in many Indian homes, onions are religious taboo for their tamasic properties. And Indian rituals are replete with days of dietary restrictions when onions are off the plate. Anyway, so many vegetables are seasonal, they could simply add onions to the list. They don’t, and that’s a big reason why the price of onions seems unpredictable.
India produces three crops of onion a year, but only one has shelf life. This is harvested in spring and brought to the wholesale market from March onwards. Onion trading is controlled by a tight oligopoly, often in cahoots with politicians. Onion farmers are mostly marginal, having no storage facilities. Traders buy their produce at a low price, ensuring not a single onion is out of their control. Then, they hoard the stock, jacking up prices and multiplying their fortunes. The hike could happen any time between March and October. “It seems unpredictable for consumers, but it’s a well-orchestrated move,’’ says farm activist Girdhar Patil. “You’ll notice that once the new harvest arrives, around Dusshera, onion prices fall with the same speed.’’
The volatility of the onion market has altered the fortunes of many an unprepared government. So, in 2010, when prices started rising, the government stepped in, banning exports, raiding godowns and even vending onions from government offices. Last year, it even imported onions. But it’s difficult to break into the onion cartel, so here, the wholesaler, and not consumer, remains king.