The soaring price of onions is putting them out of reach of ordinary Indians. The unprecedented rise in the price of this staple vegetable, especially during the festive season, could have political implications.
Sashwati Sarkar, a low income housewife from a Delhi suburb says her family had to stop eating onions last month. This vegetable is traditionally a staple ingredient in all households across the country, whether cooked in a curry or eaten raw as an accompaniment to a meal. Now, it has become a luxury item.
Onion prices go through the roof
"It is out of my reach. During these times of inflation, the prices of all commodities have gone up. But the skyrocketing prices of onions is the last straw," Sarkar laments. And with no respite, Sarkar, and thousands of other families, are unsure when the onion will be back on the menus.
The price of onions has more than quadrupled in the last couple of months and now stands at 100 rupees (1.17 euros) per kilogram, a significant jump from 15 to 20 rupees per kilo just a few months ago. Needless to say, the poorest have been worst hit by this price blip.
Even restaurants, small eateries and so-called tiffin wallahs, who supply food to office-goers in metropolitan cities, have had to cut back on using onions in their meals because of the exorbitant prices.
"I supply a thousand lunch boxes to my clients across Mumbai. I have apologized to my customers that I will resume serving onions when prices stabilize," Govind Shetty, who runs a flourishing catering service, told DW.
Who's to blame?
The current crisis is attributed to a number of factors. Some experts say the monsoon season, which brought much more water than expected this year, has damaged the crops, reducing yields and also delaying harvesting time to November. Others have blamed the severe shortage on traders and blackmarketeers who hoard supplies, resulting in the escalation of prices.
"The runaway onion prices have now started riots and agitations and will be the nemesis of the government in power. We have seen this in the past and it won't surprise us if it plays out again," Manish Sisodia, of the recently formed Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man's Party) told DW. His party, which is contesting the upcoming Delhi assembly elections, hopes to make political capital of the situation.
Delhi's chief minister Sheila Dikshit admitted the situation was serious. "We are trying our best to stabilize prices. I am hopeful that when new crops come, prices will reduce," she told DW.
According to the agriculture ministry, the country consumes almost 15 million tons of onions annually and despite being the world's second-largest producer of onions after China, it has the third-lowest yield per hectare among the 20 biggest producers.
"We see this onion crisis erupt every now and then. Though our domestic demand has increased over the last three years, the supply and demand chain has not kept up in pace," Geeta Gauri of the Competition Commission of India told DW.
This government body, which released a report on India's onion market earlier this year, pointed at the domination of traders and "commission agents" right from the primary markets onwards, putting pressure both on farmers at the one end and on consumers at the other.
The government clearly finds itself in a spot. With Diwali - the festival of lights - round the corner and four assembly elections scheduled for November, the steep rise in onion prices has not only cast a shadow on festivities, but could also disturb its political calculations. The humble, yet potent, vegetable could well be a political game changer.