India may be a country wracked by political corruption, sexual violence against women, sectarian strife, a huge wealth gap and rampant poverty – but it is the humble onion that could decide the fate of the current government in power. Prices for the eye-watering vegetable which is used in a multitude of Indian dishes have risen so high in recent weeks --- 80 rupees per kilogram (about $0.56 per pound) – largely due to shortages that the prized staple is now beyond the financial reach of India’s teeming masses of poor, most of whom live on less than $2 per day, according to World Bank data.
Indian media reported that onion supplies have been hampered by drought conditions in key onion-growing regions like Maharashtra, as well as parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. OneIndia reported that price could jump to as high as 100 rupees per kilo within weeks.
The right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has even staged protest demonstrations against the Congress Party-dominated ruling government to vent their frustrations. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, members of both BJP and the Aad Admi (“Common Man”), a newly-formed anti-corruption party, have set up stalls in the capital city of Delhi where they are selling heavily subsidized onions (at prices between 25 and 40 rupees per kilogram) to passersby in an effort to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Delhi’s BJP chief Vijay Goel called the government a ”total failure” with respect to regulating onion prices. "The Delhi government has totally mismanaged the onion crisis,” he said, according to OneIndia. “That is why we have decided to help people by selling onion at reasonable rates."
Onions are viewed as an essential – and up to now, affordable -- commodity for India’s poor, an ingredient that they simply cannot do without. "As the main opposition party we are concerned [with] the growing prices of all the commodities including petroleum products, but there is a strong public sentiment for… onions in India,” said BJP's national secretary Anil Jain. “[The] onion is very important for all the sections of society in India, particularly the poor, which can survive on just onions and bread.”
The BJP may be particularly sensitive to the topic of onions – its own government in 1998 collapsed partly due to the spiraling cost of the bulb back then. BJP likely hopes that soaring onion prices and the attendant shortage may remove Congress officials from office in parliamentary elections and Legislative Assembly elections later this year and next year.
The government has defended its efforts in containing onion prices, blaming factors beyond their control. "I don't know about prices but I know about the crop condition,” said Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. “The crop in Nashik [a famed onion-growing region in Maharashtra] has been affected due to drought. As [of] today, the overall crop condition is good."
According to a report from Cable News Network-Indian Broadcasting Network (CNN-IBN), an entity called the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd. (NAFED) – which operates under the auspices of the government’s Ministry of Agriculture – is seeking to import onions from Pakistan, Iran, China and Egypt in order to increase domestic supply and clamp down on prices.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.