Onions hold a unique place in the political history of India, they can make or break governments. In 1980, Indira Gandhi made a comeback to power, ousting the first non-Congress government at the Centre in the ‘onion election’, as she called it. Soaring prices of onions ensured that the late Sushma Swaraj, who was appointed as chief minister just 40 days before Delhi went to polls in 1998, lost to Sheila Dikshit who stayed in power for the next fifteen years.
The kitchen staple is once again in the news as prices of the essential commodity soar to as much as Rs 180 a kg in some parts of the country. The issue resonated in Parliament’s winter session with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in an attempt at banter saying she hardly included onions and garlic in her diet. This was followed by another BJP minister Ashwini Choubey deflecting a question on the steep rise in prices by saying that he was a strict vegetarian who had never eaten an onion in his life, hence was clueless on the issue.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram, freshly released from Tihar jail, threw a Marie Antoinette barb at Sitharaman asking whether she ate avocado instead of onions. This certainly hit home as the minister took pains to deny the elitism argument in the Rajya Sabha, citing the various poverty alleviation schemes rolled out by the government, and citing cavalier approaches to the same problem by her predecessors in office, including the recently released interlocutor. Amid the continuing bad news about the economy, skyrocketing onion prices have only added to the gloom.
The government has attributed the steep hike in prices to the decline by 30-40 per cent of onion production in the country consequent to the delay in sowing of Kharif onion because of the late arrival of the monsoon and subsequently floods in many states. This crisis has been brewing for some time and steps should have been taken to resolve it by now. While onions are being imported from Turkey, Afghanistan and Egypt, and an export ban has been ordered, the recent admission by the government in the Lok Sabha that 32,000 tonnes of onions had rotted in godowns is shocking to say the least.
This is a seasonal phenomenon but governments never seem to learn from it, nor ensure that warehousing infrastructure matches production. No serious efforts are made to stem the rise in prices even as Indian consumers are left in tears. It is time the government drew up a foolproof action plan to combat this crisis if it does not want to meet the same fate that previous governments did because of the humble onion.