The crying game – India’s onion crisis

December 22nd, 20101:05 pm @

The not-so-humble onion.

Enough to make a grown politician cry. Photo by swatjester (some rights reserved).

I should have noticed something was amiss up when we ordered take away a few nights ago. Any food in India – even home-delivered – is always accompanied by a surfeit of condiments, chief among them bags and bags of sliced onions. Not being fans of raw onions, they usually go into our fridge to be pulled out next time we’re cooking.
But the sad excuses for onions that came with the kebabs we’d ordered weren’t suitable for a future dish. Emaciated and looking utterly forlorn, they weren’t even fit for the compost bin. Clearly, something was rotten in the onion market.

Indeed, it was. India is currently in the grip of an onion crisis, with prices of the essential vegetable doubling in the past two months. The culprit is this year’s more-than-enough monsoon, which as well as dumping more rain than usual across most of the country, is now hanging about in the onion-producing states of Maharashtra and Rajasthan, ruining crops, pushing down supplies and jacking up prices.

With onions central to so many Indian dishes, it’s causing problems across the country. Restaurants have been cutting back on the free onions dished up to diners (in house and at home) and even taking items off their menus that rely too heavily on the pungent bulb.

It is also dominating media – both mainstream and social – with TV news running “Onion Crisis” bulletins, financial wires rushing out the latest developments and sub-editors across the country consulting their store of onion puns. Meanwhile, it’s the top-trending topic on Twitter in India.

In a somewhat uncharacteristic burst of action, the federal government has taken steps to deal with the situation over the past few days, dropping import duties on onions and banning their export. Meanwhile, flood- and terror-struck Pakistan has been sending relief supplies of onions to India. They may have their nuclear arsenals trained on each other, but clearly Pakistan sees India’s onion distress as no laughing matter.

It’s no joke for the ruling Congress Party, either. Already facing embarrassment over a scandal involving the allocation of mobile phone licences, the last thing it needs an onion crisis, especially since it’s something voters take seriously. Farmers have pelted politicians with onions (during a glut, when they faced plummeting prices), while the vegetable has been linked to a number of political defeats. In 1998 the then chief minister of Rajahs tan blamed out-of-control onion prices for his party’s loss, as did the BJP in Delhi in the same year.

Which is perhaps why Sheila Dikshit, the current chief minister of Delhi – where residents consume some 3,000 tonnes of onions a day – has convened a high-level meeting to find solutions to the runaway prices.

If the country’s farm minister is to be believed, prices should return to normal in a few weeks’ time. Until then the chefs and households of India will just have to cope with the higher prices. Or, as a colleague quipped, follow Jain recipes; as Jain beliefs forbid the eating of onions, they’re wholly unaffected by the ongoing crisis.

Photo by Flickr user swatjester.
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