It’s all about knowing your onions. And in India, where life is full of flavour, colour, spice and all things nice, onions are getting to be one of those essential aspects of everyday life that are getting more rare by the day. The other day, walking through the small market I generally get my vegetables from, I found that there were only two stalls there selling onions, where normally there would be about seven. Also, the wares that they did have on show were sub-standard, small, stunted, battered, rejects rather than the prize bulbs I would have chosen. ‘Sorry, the supply is like this, we have no choice,’ the vendor said, even as I reeled backwards at the price he cited – about four times what I usually paid for quality I would never look at.
This has been the scenario in this part of the world for a few weeks now. The headline news has concentrated on onions, with slight tangents to look at the case of other vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant and yams. Garlic comes a close second to its cousin the onion where price and standard of supply is concerned, so expensive and so low-grade that few want to buy it, even if they could afford to. Carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower and other staples that every household has in the larder are being replaced by sprouted lentils and protein granules/chunks and other substitutes, just to balance budgets and dietary requirements. Restaurants are still providing onions with curries and kebabs, with sandwiches and burgers, with salads and suppers, but as a side or extra, to be specially ordered and separately paid for. And many menus are citing the non-availability of the stuff, replacing it with cabbage, with extra jalapenos and, in one hilarious case, with a plus order of ketchup.
All this sounds very odd and rather dire, considering that the shortage of one particular common vegetable has become the stuff of national debate. India, as the world’s second largest producer of onions after China, has been facing a crisis of sorts as onion production has gradually but inexorably fallen over the past four or so years. Farmers in my own home state, Maharashtra, are choosing to use their land to cultivate crops that are more income-generating for them and their families, with guaranteed harvests, guaranteed sales and guaranteed returns. Perhaps a major factor in this choice has been unpredictable rainfall – either there has been too much, as happened in 2010, or too little, as in 2009. All this has led to no control of the situation, arbitrary price allocation with no common minimum rates, hoarding, a black market and a kind of vegetable (especially onion) mafia, all of which could be part of a very bad Bollywood movie plot. The irony is that not too long ago, there was such a glut of onions in the market that the bulbs were being sold at a mere four rupees or less per kilogram!
But somewhere in this vegetable soap opera, the government plays a rather significant role. Many blame the Indian minister in charge of food and agriculture, Sharad Pawar, saying that he did not do much to analyse the situation in time and deal with it before it could escalate to the levels it is at now. He cannot possibly be faulted for unseasonable and unpredictable weather conditions, but he could have foreseen the issues of unstable supply after becoming aware of the damage to the standing crops and the harvest that was nowhere at normal, at-par levels. Crop damage at between 25 and 50 percent in the onion-producing regions of the country was noted in October 2010; the low supply to the markets was seen in the next month. In December, prices had shot past affordable limits. But the honourable minister, it is reported, was busy with more important issues – he was signing licenses for the export of the onions the Indian kitchen so urgently required! The stuff of so many savoury Indian culinary products was being sent off to Pakistan and parts beyond.
And the irony does not end with the price factor. The real crux of the whole drama has come now, when the onion market has been given a fillip in a process of crisis management rather than logical functioning of a balanced economy. All export permits are being reassessed, all onion exports have been stopped and all supply chains and storage facilities are being examined. Maddest of all in this madhouse of supply, demand and sales is the fact that we, India, are now getting onions from the country many still see as the ‘enemy’ or ‘rival’ – on and off the cricket field – Pakistan. Yes, those same onions that we sent them not so long ago. Of course, that too has a bit of a rider attached – the Pakistani onion is said to be of lower quality than the Indian one; but that could be just that same cross-border rivalry rearing its idiotic head.
But then, with onions, who really knows them!
Ramya Sarma is a Mumbai-based writer-editor.