Faced with frequent changes in export-import and price spiral in onions due to even marginal shortfall, the Centre has been working on a plan to permanently become a surplus country in this edible bulb by expanding areas in “non-traditional” growing States. Success of the plan will make domestic prices stable throughout the year, officials said.

The cultivation of onion was mainly confined to Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan, which were catering to the entire demand of the country as most other States are deficit. There has been a significant increase in area in Madhya Pradesh, nearly 50 per cent to 173.89 lakh hectares in just four years (between 2016 and 2019), an agriculture ministry official said.

“Soon, there will be consistent supply of onion throughout the year. It was realised that depending on one particular geographical area has certain risk as it has been found that any small damage to the crop can have a big impact in pushing up prices,” said AK Singh, deputy director general (horticulture) of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

Crop diversification

Singh said when the idea to grow onion was spread among farmers in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh two years ago, they became ready to shift from from paddy and many farmers are happy that their income has gone up compared to previous years after the crop diversification. “Now we are planning to encourage farmers in Ladakh to grow onion on a commercial scale,” Singh said.

However, there is varietal challenge for onion in Ladakh as currently farmers in that region grow long-duration varieties, during April-October which mature in six months, whereas in the plains it is four-month crops, said an agriculture scientist. Besides, the shelf life of crop in high altitude needs to be enhanced from the current one month, he said adding trials are being conducted and there should be at least three years of consistent productivity.

In India, onion is grown in three seasons – early-kharif (February-April in southern region, May-June in Maharashtra), late-kharif (August-September) and rabi (October-November). The crop is suitable in 13-24 degree Celsius temperature.

Self sufficiency

Officials said like the self sufficiency made in sugarcane, as India was earlier facing shortage in every fourth year, there is also a need to focus on onion. Though some experts have suggested for value addition like manufacturing onion flakes or powder, the consumer preference is currently for fresh onion and there has to be assured supply, the ministry official said.

The Centre had banned export in September 2020 and lifted in January 2021 as part of various measures to check price rise. It had also imposed stock limit under the Essential Commodities Act in October 2020. In September 2019, too, export was banned for about six months.

During 2021-22 (April-December), India has exported 11.74 lakh tonnes (lt) of onions and imported 26,870 tonnes whereas exports were 15.89 lt and import 66,351 tonnes in 2020-21, official data show.