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16 Jul 2024, Edition - 3290, Tuesday

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Onion: The sob story

Umaima Shafiq


Onion prices continue to stay high troubling the people and the government alike. After all, would anyone take a chance with this formidable, pungent bulb?

The sob story continues. Onion prices are showing no sign of receding, consumers can’t do without this kitchen staple, the government is trying every trick to keep the people happy.

Just why are onion prices rising since this September, particularly when India is the second largest onion producer in the world? In Coimbatore this vegetable staple costs from Rs.70 per kilogram in farmers’ markets to Rs.80-Rs.100 at vegetable retailers like Palamudir Nilayams. The small onions or ‘chinna vengayam’ or ‘sambar onions’ prices have also skyrocketed.

MSR Raja, an onion wholesaler in Coimbatore tells The Covai Post, “From September, our onion loads have decreased. Heavy and unseasonal rains have damaged onion crops in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh our major onion suppliers. In Tamil Nadu, big onions were being cultivated in Palladam and Tenkasi but all that stopped due to climatic and soil conditions. We used to sell 16-25 tonnes per day but which has slowed down steadily.”

Similarly K Babu an onion trader at the Ooty Municipal Market also blames heavy rains and crop damage for the price rice.

“It is a fast perishing vegetable so we cannot store it and particularly not in Ooty, where the dew and damp can decay the bulbs easily. Even now every 100-kg sack of onions has at least 10-15 kilograms of decayed bulbs. We are selling only 7 tonnes of onions per day instead of the 15 tonnes of normal days. Small onion prices will rise even during normal rains. We are around 10 major onion traders in Ooty. All our stock comes from other states,” says Babu.

Coimbatore-based merchant at the MGR wholesale vegetable market says this year’s increase in onion price, which topping Rs. 100 a kg comes after the 2011 rise that hit Rs. 90 a kg.

He interrupts when questions shift to ‘hoarding’ by onion producers, and says it’s a legitimate practice to stock 50 per cent of wet onions soon after the harvest and released in the hot season to keep prices stable. Otherwise prices will shoot up to unimaginable levels months after the harvest.

He suggested that people, who are crying over rising onion prices, can control prices if they want. “Stop buying onions for two days, and get it for the price you want on the third day,” he quips.

The government is scrambling to correct the situation by ordering release from the buffer stock to increase availability, and planning to import 1 lakh tonnes onion, while banning export of all varieties of the bulb, to address the shortage.

“Export forms just 5 per cent, which doesn’t greatly impact the producer,” said Basheer.

As we all know, rains in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have driven prices up as production is hit, he said.

“An acre of onion cultivation yields about 22 tonnes of onion, of which only 50 per cent is fit for market consumption,” said Basheer.

The reason is rains make the field slushy, and harvest and transporting onion from the fields become extremely cumbersome and difficult.

According to Basheer, the prices of onion will ease only by February as besides rain, the months of November, December and January called ‘European months’ are packed with end-of-the-year festivities, and they are a cold season.

“During cold months, more meat is prepared with spices, for which onion is an essential item.”

In the south, wholesale onion prices hovered at Rs. 70 during Diwali and following that the rainy spell, which is about a fortnight, he said. It dropped to between Rs. 50 and Rs. 60 thereafter. “The price is 20 per cent more at the retail market,” he said.

He also said the consumer complains about stark price difference from store to store, but that’s unfair. “This is because the consumer cannot tell wet onion from the dry. The dry variety is always more expensive, at least 15 per cent more.”

He also said subsidised rents for warehouses can help the farmer store onions, a measure that can benefit him as well as the people, and of course, the government.

In India onions are grown in about 1.20 million hectares in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Telangana. Around 700-800 hectares of small onions are farmed in Perur taluk of Coimbatore district but even these crops have declined due to rains.

Lasalgaon in Maharashtra is Asia’s largest wholesale onion market, yet even here these bulbs triple in price from farmer to the time they reach the actual customers. Middlemen are blamed for this, while laymen are arguing that governments should arrange storage when production and prices are stable. Meanwhile Indian government has temporarily stopped exports and decided to import and distribute onions through National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED). Coimbatore traders are sceptical and say that nothing is assured until onion loads and prices stabilize.

Onions can be grown in a wide range of temperatures and soils like sandy, clayey, loamy and heavy. They have a three-month cultivation and harvest period at optimum temperatures of 13-25degree Celsius for vegetative and bulb development. Areas with 650mm to 750 mm rains are the best while rains more or less than this can water log and damage the crops.

Perhaps, the problem is not scarcity but surplus. If surplus onion is stored appropriately, then it will be available in good condition almost throughout the year. Building storage facilities for such a politically and economically sensitive vegetable, perhaps, will save the day for any government.

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