India has become so desperate for fresh stocks of the onions it uses in spicy curries that it is trying to import them from neighbours, and is even considering airlifts to ease soaring prices.
Indians go through 15m tonnes of onions a year, using them as the base for traditional dishes such as biryani and bhaji. The country is the second-largest onion grower in the world, after China, and normally exports them.
But retail prices have quadrupled in the past three months, to as high as 100 rupees ($1.62) per kliogram, making the onions an unaffordable luxury for India’s poor.
The soaring prices could become an issue in elections scheduled for next month in five states, including the capital, New Delhi.
To ease prices, the state-run farm cooperative issued a tender this week to purchase onions from abroad.
Supplies from abroad may take weeks to arrive, however; Farm Minister Sharad Pawar proposed on Wednesday importing them by air, because sea transport takes longer.
“The state-run agencies are floating import tenders, but supplies are likely to come only after 3-4 weeks,” said Changdev Holkar, a director at the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation. “And quantity would be also miniscule compared to demand.”
A new crop of onions should be harvested in two or three weeks, but heavy rains are expected in the coming days in several onion-growing states, which could have a disastrous effect on the crops.
The government blames the crisis on both bad weather and speculation by middlemen. KV Thomas, the Indian food minister, accused traders on Saturday of “cheating consumers,” urging them to sell onions at “affordable rates.”
His ruling Congress party fears a backlash from its main support base. “The sky-high prices of onions have given the opposition a potent weapon to attack the government with,” commented the Hindustan Times newspaper recently.
Costly onions have a history of political fallout, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being ousted in 1998 Delhi state polls after surging onion prices soured the voter mood.
In January 1980, the late Congress leader Indira Gandhi rode back to power on the back of rising onion prices, waving huge strings of them at campaign rallies and saying that a government has no right to govern if it cannot control onion costs.
The latest onion price rise has also come in the middle of India’s most important religious festival season, an occasion for multi-day feasts and family dinners.