No more tears please

by December 9, 2019 0 comments

It’s not like there aren’t any alternatives but the Govt now needs to implement out-of-the-box solutions

It is ironical that the onion manages to leave us teary-eyed every third year or so despite its impressive growth, the production of the bulb having gone up from below 5.5 million tonnes in 2003 to above 19 million tonnes in recent years. India is the second-largest producer of onions, yet a rained out or crisis year means that we are forced to import the bulb from the very nations we export it to and at prices higher than what we sell to them. Clearly, we need a policy fix for this instead of debating alternatives like the virtues of an onion-less diet or varied food cultures. The pungency of the bulb has hit home, prices reportedly climbing to Rs 165 a kg in some parts of the country, the highest in recent years. It has clearly affected the Government, which could well have done without another crisis in the middle of an economic slump, hit our foreign relations as export cuts have meant woes for friendly nations like Bangladesh and have had MPs in Parliament hurling invectives against each other. For onions have always had huge political implications. In the 1980 elections, sky-high onion prices helped former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dislodge a coalition Government. In 1998, sharp onion prices led to the fall of the BJP Government in New Delhi as it became a measure of economic well-being and symptomatic of a bigger food inflation. So the Modi Government may have taken some desperate measures like offloading stocks, banning exports and sanctioning imports of 1.2 lakh tonnes but it cannot skirt around the issue of ensuring healthy economics for farmers.

With year-long restrictions imposed on retail traders and wholesalers on volumes they can sell, farmers are unable to sell their produce when they have a bumper crop. During shortages, distributors make money by hoarding. In both scenarios of volatile pricing, the farmer loses. If the Government increases its own stocks and based on predictive analysis, grades export restrictions, it can arrest sharp price fluctuations. Why can’t India increase the acreage under onion cultivation? NITI Aayog member and eminent economist Ramesh Chand had suggested promoting onion cultivation in States like Uttar Pradesh and popularising onion production in the kharif season as well. We need to find out why despite technology-aided solutions, our onion has the lowest yield in the world, lesser than that of the US, which does not even fall under the top 10 onion-producing nations. China cultivates onion in land that’s half of ours but is the largest producer because its yield is double than ours. Of course, we need better irrigation facilities but fighting seasonal extremes of weather means we have to work on the onion’s shelf life as well. We need to minimise post-harvest loss of a highly perishable crop with improved preservation facilities. Why can’t we, for example, promote modern cold storage facilities in newer onion-producing States like Madhya Pradesh? Around 30-40 per cent of the crop is lost due to lack of storage facilities. If there are onion dehydrating and processing units across the country, then the supply-demand mismatch can at least be corrected. The Government can break the handful of cartels that pocket a major share of trade in big markets like Maharashtra and Karnataka and set up Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs), just as was suggested by the report by the Bengaluru-based Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC). The 2017 study had said that the market structure of onion is unilaterally dictated by the traders, not farmers, so APMCs would help break the cartels’ stranglehold. Also, the Government has to be prepared for a glut in January when the next harvest is due and the imported varieties are expected to land. When it comes to onions, the Government is not short of well-intended suggestions and advice. But now it is time for it to work out a robust policy that holds throughout the year instead of resorting to last moment fire-fighting. And since the example of avocados was tossed about during a debate in Parliament, let not the onion become such a costly proposition. Reports say that Mexico’s criminal gangs are now heavily into avocado production and sales, with cartels demanding protection payments from farms. Rival gangs are reported to have targetted each other in deadly shootouts like any other case of drug violence. We don’t want our appetite for onions to become so consuming that the crop generates an extortion economy too.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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