Don’t make light of onions, please

S Murlidharan | Updated on December 11, 2019

They form part of the staple diet of many Indians, especially the poor. The government must focus on promoting cold storages and food processing industries to iron out seasonal fluctuations and shortages

Mary Antoinette’s callous exhortation to the French people to eat cake when bread wasn’t available granted her a permanent seat in the hall of infamy. Two hundred and thirty years later, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in Parliament that she doesn’t know much about the relentless and steep hike in onion prices across the country as she eats very little of onion and garlic.

A public servant should not be concerned with what she eats but what the poor eat. Onion forms part of the staple diet of many Indians, especially the poor who manage to eat rotis with the only side dish they can afford — onion spiced with chilli. In 1998, the BJP lost the Delhi assembly elections thanks to its inability to rein in onion prices.

A great humbler

In his eminently readable novel The Devil’s Alternative, Frederick Forsyth regales the readers with the story of American satellites capturing images of stunted growth of Russian wheat and how that helps it bring the reluctant Soviet rulers to the negotiating table for nuclear stockpile reduction. Food then is the greatest humbler. Anyone making light of it or bumbling on guarding their price line is in for trouble.

It is easy for the ruling BJP to blame the weather gods for damaging crops, including onion. Agriculture has always been held hostage by weather gods. If irrigation projects are the answer to drought, proper cold storage is the answer for shortage of food items caused by excessive and relentless rains. Yet cold storage which can help overcome seasonal shortages besides considerably reducing wastages begets national attention only annually — the finance minister conferring income tax or other fiscal benefits for those setting up cold-storage facility.

Play a proactive role

The truth is, in certain areas of economic activity, including uninterrupted supply of food at affordable prices, the government must play a direct and proactive role. Cold storage and buffer stock of essential food items are cases in point. When India can emulate the US in building buffer stock of crude oil stored in cavernous rocks, there is no reason why it shouldn’t do the same with food items.

To be sure, our food procurement behemoth, Food Corporation of India, does have an envious quantity of cereals in its stock. But then most of them reportedly rot in the open and are damaged by the elements. Procurement to be meaningful should be logically followed up with proper storage and distribution.

Import of onion from Egypt is fine. It could douse the raging fire of rising prices a wee bit but that is an action so typical of India — reacting only when a crisis blows on our face. When you import in a crisis situation, the exporter extracts his pound of flesh.

Food processing

The food processing industry can also play its role in ironing out seasonal fluctuations and shortages. The US boasts a thriving food processing industry that converts milk beyond use date into yoghurt, buttermilk and ice-cream. Again in the US, fruit juice costs much less than fruits themselves thanks to their abundant supply, which once again is rooted in the sage thinking that losing precious crops to elements is an avoidable folly. We have a long way to go in this regard.

Ideally our rural areas must see food processing units springing up close to them in a manner of cheek by jowl. AMUL is doing the splendid job of forward integration by producing ice-cream, yoghurt, milk powder, ghee and what have you — all by-products of milk. Others must take a cue.

Onion paste produced in large quantities can tickle the taste buds of those who cannot live without it though admittedly that won’t the same to the gourmets as savouring a crunchy raw onion. The point is a slew of measures are needed on the food front to meet the challenges posed by the elements.

The writer is a Chennai-based chartered accountant

Published on December 11, 2019

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