Rising onion prices sting India

Watch: 'Only the rich who can afford such high prices'

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The Indian economy is facing one of its worst crises in a decade and while that is worrying the political and economic fraternity, what is worrying ordinary Indians is the price of onions.

On Sunday, a truck on the Delhi-Jaipur highway was hijacked by robbers. Its precious cargo? Forty tonnes of onions.

People here eat their way through 15 million tonnes of onions a year. Almost every dish uses it, whether cooked in a curry or eaten raw as an accompaniment to a meal.

A month ago, one kilogram of onions would have cost about 20 rupees (20p; 30 cents). Since then, the price has gone up nearly five-fold, costing up to 100 rupees and stinging everyone in India.

Start Quote

Should poor people stop eating? Because it is only the rich who can afford such high price”

End Quote Mallika Kumari Consumer

Irate consumers are even taking to the airwaves to complain.

One of Delhi's most popular radio station hosts is discussing the price of onions and the lines are buzzing as listeners call in to give their views on one of the most politically sensitive issues in the country.

Strumming a guitar, disc jockey Nitin sings a parody about onions based on a popular Bollywood number.

He says it's the topic everyone is talking about.

"We get a lot of callers, even the middle-class people who can afford it have been calling up and they are pretty angry about this issue," he says.

"Onions are so basic. Some people have taken it in their stride, so they make jokes about it. One caller said it was his anniversary so he gave his wife a ring with an onion on it!"

Disc jockey Nitin offers his listeners onions as prizes Radio disc jockey Nitin offers his listeners onions as prizes
High demand, low supply

The reason for the price spike is that stocks are low, after a drought hit crops last year and heavy rain damaged crops this year.

Fresh produce is available for only five months, and then the country relies on stored onions.

At roadside eateries, many have stopped serving the traditional meal accompaniment of sliced onions.

At the local vegetable market in South Delhi, bags of onions are being guarded by worried shopkeepers.

Vendors are having to guard their stocks of onions from thieves Vendors are having to guard their stocks of onions from thieves

"We have to be careful with these bags of onions," one vendor says. "I can't blame people wanting to steal them. They are so much in demand right now and we simply are not getting enough supplies."

Those who are buying are bargaining harder than ever before.

"How can we eat food without onions?" asks Jehnara Khan, a housewife from Mehrauli in Delhi.

"Chicken and cottage cheese are considered a luxury and now onions have become as expensive as those. I simply don't know what to cook without onions."

Another shopper, Mallika Kumari, says she cannot feed her children even the basic bread and onions that used to be their staple dinner.

"What does the government want us to do? Should poor people stop eating? Because it is only the rich who can afford such high prices.

"We have just stopped eating onions completely… but how long can this go on?"

But it has been suggested that a bigger problem may be at play - that of hoarding.

There are reports that people have been stockpiling sacks of onions, fearful that the hike may continue. India's Competition Commission is now looking into allegations that cartels and hoarding are pushing up prices.

Political vegetable

The onion can also be a political game-changer. With angry lawmakers protesting in parliament, the government was forced to announce steps to curb price rises.

It banned onion exports for two weeks and then hiked the minimum price to discourage exports. Now it is considering importing onions from neighbouring Pakistan.

Politician Vijay Jolly has been celebrating the Hindu festival of Rakhi with onions instead of sweets Politician Vijay Jolly has been celebrating the Hindu festival of Rakhi with onions instead of sweets

But opposition parties have been quick to get on the offensive.

One member of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Vijay Jolly, gave away bags of onions instead of sweets for the Hindu festival of Rakhi.

Onion prices have been known to swing elections before. In 1998, the then-ruling BJP suffered heavy losses in Delhi state elections, a result widely blamed on high onion prices.

Vijay Jolly says the government is not doing enough.

"They now talk of importing onions, why didn't they anticipate this problem? It's a huge issue, it's adding to the already high food inflation."

The worried Delhi state government has started special counters across the city, to sell subsidised onions. But security guards have been deployed here too, to control angry crowds.

Some say that the move may be too late.

While elections have been known to turn on the cost of the onion, it is the pockets of poorer people who are hit the hardest.

But with many states going to the polls and general elections due next year, onion prices could sting politicians as well.

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