NEW DELHI: Are the rising prices of onions + ahead of the festive season an isolated phenomenon or is there a systemic problem in India’s cultivation and distribution of the vegetable rich in calcium, iron, dietary fibre, protein, folic acid, Vitamin C, and antioxidants?
Are we growing it right?
India may be the world’s second largest producer of onions in the world, after China, but its yield is among the lowest in the world. In fact, in terms of the area under cultivation, India’s onion acreage is higher than China’s and constitutes almost 27% of the global acreage for onion cultivation. The US, which is not even in the top 10 onion producers, has a yield that’s nearly four times that of India’s.
Are we storing it right?
There are three sowing seasons for the onion crop in India — kharif, which is done between July-August with harvesting in October-December; late kharif, which is done between October-November with harvesting in January-March; and rabi, which is done between December-January, with harvesting between end of March-May. 65% of the onion production happens during the rabi sowing season and overall, 30% of the produce comes from Maharashtra.
According to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), it’s the rabi crop which sustains the country’s requirements from the time it’s harvested till the festive season, in October-November, before the kharif and late kharif harvest kicks in. Being a semi-perishable crop, “30-40% of the crop gets lost during the storage” with losses going over 40% during natural calamities.
As per the department of agriculture, cooperation and farmers welfare, India’s current cold storage capacity for its total onion crop is a measly 2% of its total production — leaving 98% of its produce open to the vagaries of the elements.
Are we selling it right?
Between the price at which it’s delivered at the wholesale market and the price at which it reaches the kitchen, the average Indian household ends up paying double or even more than double the wholesale price. In Delhi, for instance, which on Monday received 221 tonnes of onions, the retail price was hovering at Rs 60 per kg against the wholesale price of Rs 25 per kg while in Mumbai, which received more than 6,000 tonnes of onions on Monday, the wholesale and retail prices were Rs 32 per kg and Rs 60 per kg, respectively.
Last year, a glut of onions caused prices to crash to Re 1 per kg in the wholesale market, with some farmers dumping the crop on roads in protest.
Is the ban right?
The political fallout of rising onion prices has forced the government to adopt knee-jerk reactions — such as banning onion exports like it did this time. It did it earlier too, such as in 2010, 2014 and 2017. That however, puts at risk India’s dependability as a reliable supplier of onions, especially considering that it was the largest exporter of onions in 2018, selling over 9.24 million tonnes.