Agri Business

Multi-layered issue: Why onion is a political hot potato in India

Radheshyam Jadhav Pune | Updated on October 27, 2020 Published on October 27, 2020

A price hike in the election season can make and break parties’ chances

In India, very little can be cooked without onions — including electoral success. Time and again onions have played a major role in swinging votes and bringing the ruling politicians to tears, while giving their opponents a taste of success.

Also read: Imported onions try to conquer market, taste buds; pungency keeps desi varieties ahead

One of the successful experiments of onion politics was carried out by Indira Gandhi. In 1980, her party Congress (I) ran a major campaign against the rise in onion prices and it helped Indira to bounce back to power. Later, many other parties and politicians followed in her footsteps.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman might not be eating a lot of onion, but her party has faced the music in the past because of the onion price hike and now it is trying to pull down the soaring prices of the bulb crop ahead of Bihar polls. Not surprisingly, Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav was seen holding up a garland of onions, blaming the BJP and Nitish Kumar government for the sizzling prices.

In 1998, the BJP faced defeat in the New Delhi Assembly polls thanks to a hike in onion prices. But it is not just the BJP, almost every political party has been wary of onion prices in the election season.

Also read: Traders stay away from onion auctions at Lasalgaon

Onion is a politically sensitive crop, said Anil Ghanwat, President of Shetkari Sanghatana, the apex farmers’ body in Maharashtra. “It is the farmer who grows onions and it is politicians who decide the price based on their political interests. Every ruling party has made every possible effort to keep onion prices under control ahead of elections. But farmers suffer in this process. Even this time the government’s effort is to keep prices low so that Bihar voters are not agitated,” he said.

Political analyst Bharati Patil said that for the majority of households in India, onion is an essential part of daily cooking and any disturbance in its supply has a direct impact on the masses. “There are two reasons for onion price hike during elections. It might be because of a shortage of onion due to damage caused to the crop because of rains or other natural disasters, or there might be efforts to create an artificial shortage to make it an election issue,” she said.

Also read: Hoarding or Nature’s fury? Why onion prices in Lasalgaon continue to soar

Bharat Dighole, President, Maharashtra State Onion Growers' Association, said that politicians play with the lives of onion farmers. “The ruling party and the opposition, both look at onion as a political crop and ultimately it is farmers who suffer. People cannot prepare food without onion and politicians know that the formula of electoral success goes through people’s stomach,” he said.

Agitated farmers

As prices are once again at the centre of political debate, farmers in Nashik, India’s onion hub, are agitated.

“Every time there is a hike in onion prices, the government import onions. But where is the government when farmers sell their produce at ₹5 per kg?” asked an angry farmer. Nashik farmers have tried various agitations against the ruling parties who have largely ignored the angst.

A couple of years ago Sanjay Sathe, a farmer, sent a money order for ₹1,064 to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to draw his attention to the crisis being faced by onion farmers. Sathe had received just ₹1,064 as he sold his harvest of onions weighing 750 kg (which translates to ₹1.41 a kg) in the wholesale market while he had invested ₹75,000 in the cultivation of the bulbs.

Indian onion in demand

India is the second-largest onion growing country in the world. Its onions are famous for their pungency and are available round the year. Indian onions has two crop cycles — first harvesting is from November to January and the second from January to May.

According to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) there are various onion varieties found in India. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Telangana are major producers with Maharashtra ranking first.

The country exported 11,49,896.85 mt of fresh onion for ₹2,320.7 crore ( $324.20 million) in 2019-20, according to APEDA.

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Published on October 27, 2020
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