x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

India’s poor weep at the escalating price of onions

The price of onions is soaring in India, to the cost of the poorest members of society

Strange stories involving onions are appearing in the Indian media. Car showrooms are offering a bag of onions as a gift to entice punters; an enraged customer shoots the owner of a roadside eatery after being served an omelette with insufficient onion; last month, a group of armed men ambushed a truck on the Delhi-Jaipur highway and made off with 40 tonnes of onions.

It’s unlikely they made a big frittata out of their loot. Those onions would have ended up in the shops, making plenty of money for the highway bandits.

The poor in India have a new problem to add to their melancholy poverty, exploitation, homelessness, insecurity, and ill-health. Onions have become unaffordable. At 100 rupees ($1.60) per kilo, the price has risen by 150 per cent over the past year. Between July and August alone, onion prices jumped 51 per cent.

Onions in India should not be expensive. India is the second largest onion producer in the world, after China. Indians get through 15 million tonnes of onions every year. But the price of onions is so high that it is becoming a political issue.

In the past, high onion prices have brought down regional governments: the Delhi and Rajasthan governments in 1998. Always a sensitive issue, the onion price is making the current government very unpopular too but oddly enough, the government is sitting back, letting onions become like Rolex for the poor.

Earlier, when I used to walk past a construction site on the way to my local shopping centre, I used to see labourers eating chapattis and raw onions for lunch. Never any vegetables or lentils: these were out of their reach. The chapatti is the cheapest thing they can get and the onion helped give a bit of flavour to it, along with, perhaps, a fresh green chilli. This is the standard meal of the poor.

Now when I pass them, I see only the chapattis. Of course I know why it’s disappeared but I asked them anyway. “I can’t afford to buy onions. It’s the first time in my life that I haven’t been able to buy something so basic,” one of them told me.

Onions are an essential ingredient in Indian food. They provide the foundation for thousands of curries and other dishes. Cooking Indian food without onions is a non-starter. But in recent weeks, even middle class Indians have been shocked to find this ordinary item so expensive. These days, they are not talking about corruption or the verdicts given to the men who gang raped a young university student. They’re grumbling about onion prices.

Recently I had some decorators repaint my flat. They finished their work last week and the fumes of the paint lingered irritatingly. I went online to see what remedies there were to get rid of the smell.

People suggested a plate of chopped onions with a few drops of vinegar to dispel the fumes. Momentarily forgetting the price of them, I asked my maid to put out four or five plates of chopped onions throughout the flat. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Are you serious? No. We’ll live with the fumes,” she said.

Seasonal fluctuations in supply may be partly responsible for the high price.

The unrelenting monsoon rains this year have also caused some damage to the crop. But nothing explains the astronomical price. The Indian farmer certainly isn’t enjoying a windfall. Everyone knows that middlemen are hoarding onions. Even when the produce is plentiful, traders and middlemen hold back stocks to keep prices artificially high.

The country’s Competition Commission is looking into allegations that cartels hoarding stocks are pushing up the price but it’s taken it months to get around to it.

Meanwhile, no minister has expressed dismay that the poor are suffering.

In fact, food inflation has been a feature of the Congress-led government for several years. National Congress party president Sonia Gandhi likes to pose as someone whose heart bleeds for India’s poor. She forgets, conveniently, that her party has ruled the country for some 54 of the 67 years since independence and has spectacularly failed to remove poverty.

She appears to be unaware that rising food prices always hit the poor the hardest because the bulk of their income goes on food. In July, vegetable prices had risen by 46 per cent over the previous year.

As it is, the poor have a pathetic diet. According to a news report, last month, an eight year old girl in Orissa, eastern India, was planning to play truant from school until she remembered that it was the day egg curry was served for the free midday meal. She decided to go, just for the meal.

There was so much excited jostling when the egg curry was served that the girl, who had rushed to the head of the queue to be served first, was pushed from behind. She fell into the huge cauldron, suffering fatal burns.

The headmaster told journalists: “To you it may not mean much but for tribal children, two eggs every week is a great thing.”

Well, onions have become a “great thing”. Tomatoes are becoming a “great thing”. To make a curry with some gravy, you need at least four to five tomatoes. Poor Indians are using only one or two these days because prices have also gone through the roof.

“The way things are going, we’re running out of things to eat. Maybe they want us to stop eating altogether?” said a rickshaw puller near my home. Maybe.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi