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Onions move to the forefront in Indian politics

Posted by Your Town  October 31, 2013 10:59 AM

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India, with its 1.2 billion people, is home to 25% of the world's hungry, according to the United Nations, and a third of its poor, according to the World Bank. And for the majority of the poor other than the staple food of rice or wheat, onions form the important component of regular diet.

A spike in Onion prices in India is bringing on a bit of a stire in India, especially in the days before Diwali, the Festival of Lights. "The price spiral has created a crisis of epic culinary proportions in middle class kitchens as the country goes into its biggest festival season of the year,'' says Forbes.

Onions are an incomparable ingredient in most cuisines and not surprisingly and symbolically often individual personalities are likened to the layers of an onion. As is well known, onions are a major source of polyphenols in general, and also of flavonoids (a very important subdivision of polyphenols). They can also vary greatly in their polyphenol and flavonoid content. In general, red onions are higher in total flavonoids than white onions, (with yellow onions falling somewhere in between).

Within the US, data suggests that onions range in size, color, and taste depending upon their variety. There are generally two types of large, globe-shaped onions, classified as spring/summer or storage onions. The former class includes those that are grown in warm weather climates and have characteristic mild or sweet tastes. Included in this group are the Maui Sweet Onion (in season April through June), Vidalia (in season May through June) and Walla Walla (in season July and August). Storage onions are grown in colder weather climates and, after harvesting, are dried out for a period of several months, which allows them to attain dry, crisp skins. They generally have a more pungent flavor and are usually named by their color: white, yellow or red. Spanish onions fall into this classification. In addition to these large onions, there are also smaller varieties such as the green onion, or scallion, and the pearl onion.

India is one of the largest producers of onions in the world and is usually a net exporter. The price of a kilogram of onions has more than quadrupled from last year to a record 90 rupees-100 rupees ($1.48-$1.65), despite government predictions that prices would drop following good monsoon rains. Inflation data showed that wholesale onion prices shot up 245 per cent in August compared with a year earlier, driving the wholesale price index up 6.1 per cent.

The unrelenting monsoon rains this year have also caused some damage to the crop. A good monsoon leads to bountiful harvest resulting in increased agricultural incomes, boosts rural consumption and drives the economy. A weak monsoon - and droughts, in extreme cases - hurts farm workers, raises food prices, encourages hoarders and generally creates havoc in the economy. India's is very dependent on monsoons to irrigate the farmlands. The country receives 75% of its yearly rainfall between June and September. Some 70% of Indians depend directly or indirectly on farming. Also, agriculture accounts for 14.5% of India's $1.83 trillion GDP, and though its share is declining, agriculture still accounts for 58% of the total employment in the country.

But nothing explains the astronomical price. The Indian farmer certainly isn’t enjoying a windfall. Everyone knows that middlemen are hoarding onions. Even when the produce is plentiful, traders and middlemen hold back stocks to keep prices artificially high. India has a 19 percent share of global onion production, second only to China. Amid protests from angry lawmakers, the national government has been forced to announce steps to curb price rises including measures aimed at limiting exports. And with many states holding provincial elections this month and a national election next year, opposition parties have been quick to get on the offensive.

This year it has imported onions from Egypt and China, and it is looking elsewhere too. And the government is also considering importing onions from neighboring Pakistan -- India's arch-rival. That being said Indians have not experienced onions – raw or cooked in some time. For the economically challenged, food has remained bland without the pungency of the delectable onion and for the affluent have had to do without the browned and crisped up onions in various dishes. As Elizabeth Pennell states, “Banish (the onion) from the kitchen and the pleasure flies with it. Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest delicacy to hopeless insipidity, and dinner to despair.” And most of all, this crisis of onions is an unsavory economic trend that deprives the poor of access to quality food and source of income.

Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.

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