People across the country may have been left in tears with onions commanding astronomical prices, often upwards of Rs 100/kg. The Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government, though, is trying to bring tears of joy, capping the price of the bulb at Rs 59/kg.

The subsidised rate, however, is available only at State government-owned fair price shops, or make-shift counters popularly known as ‘Sufal Bangla’. And their sale quantity is limited to 500 g per person.

Plans are also afoot to start selling of onions at marginal ration shops with a cap on the quantity sold to each ration card holder. The idea is to allot 5 quintals (500 kg) onion to each fair price shop.

Direct procurement

Sufal Bangla, an initiative of the State government, procures vegetables directly from farmers or state-owned mandis, thereby cutting off middlemen and other channels. It acts as a link between the farmers and end-consumers. The concept includes a truck that is placed outside major markets in Kolkata with “farm-fresh produce” -- mostly locally grown green vegetables, potatoes and so on.

Onions are being sold at anywhere between Rs 100 and Rs 140 a kg across retail markets in Kolkata and its outskirts. They are a tad lower than the previous week (December 2-8) , when they sold for around Rs 150/kg.

The State is not a major producer of onion. The bulb is mostly procured from other States, primarily Maharashtra, say sources in the Agri-Marketing Department. Vegetable sellers typically procure it via middlemen.

In this case, the State government is selling at subsidised rates, bearing the cost of transportation and distribution losses. However, it is not clear whether it is procuring the vegetable directly or has engaged some other agency for it.

State Food Supplies Minister Jyotipriya Mallik’s phone was switched off, despite repeated attempts by BusinessLine to contact him.

The Chief Minister had, on Monday, made a surprise visit to one of the city’s main markets and asked middlemen to ensure that there was no hoarding, and that the Indian kitchen staple was available at “reasonable prices”.

Similar steps taken earlier

This isn’t the first time that Banerjee has stepped in to curb spiralling vegetable prices in the State.

In 2014, when the price of potato was heading northwards, the Food Supplies and Agri-Marketing Departments stopped the sale of the tuber to neighbouring States, released buffer stocks held at cold storages and sold it directly at a subsidised price through Sufal Bangla counters. Potatoes were sold at Rs 12/kg, almost half the price they were commanding at the retail market then.

In fact, when prices of the tuber went crashing some years ago, the West Bengal government initiated steps to boost its sale, including incentivising its sale to other States, to ensure better remuneration for farmers and cold storages.

Incidentally, West Bengal is among the few States that have a ‘task force’ whose job is to monitor the price of daily essentials including vegetables across different markets, bring to the notice of the government any abnormal price rise/fall and also suggest corrective action.