Raju, a salesman at a grocery shop in a Noida village near sector 135, is not complaining, rather sympathetic to the neighbourhood soothsayer, Deven baba, who announced a 50 per cent hike in the price of his popular lemon-chilli talisman - from ₹10 to ₹15 apiece.

Since last Saturday, even warding off evil eye has become costlier as the price of commonest charm, made with seven green chillis and a fresh lemon tied together in a thread, has to keep pace with the cost of its ingredients. All-India average mandi price of lemon has surged by nearly 80 per cent to ₹5,134/quintal this month from the rate prevailing in February, whereas that of green chilli by over 15 per cent to ₹5,661/quintal, according to Agmarknet portal.

“Prices have increased so much. What will he (Deven baba) do. He was bearing it for some time, but asked us to pay more until prices soften,” Raju says. The shopkeepers, who buy Deven baba’s goodluck charm hanged afresh outside their shops every week, do not mind paying the extra sum for celestial protection against bad luck. “It is peanuts for them,” explains Raju. Deven Baba supplies the lemon-chilli charm to 200 shops in Noida. He says no one has thus far protested against the increase. “They understand my compulsions,” he says.

The lemon-chilli charm is a ubiquitous  totem across north India. Shopkeepers hang it outside to ward off the evil eye, bus and truck drivers turn it atop their dashboard as a “safe journey” emblem. It is traditionally changed, and a fresh one is bought every Saturday.

In most markets across the national capital region, retailers are charging ₹50-60 per 250 gram of lemon and ₹40-50 per 250 gram of green chillis. Even among the top ten States where mandi arrivals are high, lemon prices are 16-39 per cent higher than a year ago except in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala, where rates were higher in March 2021 from the current average. But in the case of green chilli, mandi prices (March 1-23, 2022) are 23-198 per cent higher from the year-ago period in all the top ten states, based on arrival volume.

Price rise due to low arrivals, pest attack

Surprisingly, pan India mandi arrivals of green chillis were 11 per cent higher at 69,488 tonnes during March 1-23 from the corresponding period last year. On the other hand, the arrival of lemon is down by 21 per cent at 10,076 tonnes.

“While the lemon price increase is seasonal due to lower arrivals as some crops have been affected in Uttar Pradesh, it is more due to sentiments in case of chilli. Prices are higher due to reports of pest attack in Telanagana and Andhra Pradesh,” said Praveen Pundhir, a trader at a Noida mandi.

A new “invasive pest” (Thrips parvispinus) was found infesting the red chilli crop in a few districts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in December last year. The infection affected the plants at the flowering stage and stunted the growth of fruits. Andhra Pradesh (43.5 per cent) and Telangana (23.5 per cent) account for over 67 per cent of the country’s chilli output, estimated to be 19.88 lakh tonnes (lt) in 2020-21 (July-June).