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India in a stew over onion shortage Add to ...

Maoist insurgencies, government graft, regional instability: In India, there are plenty of things for aam aadmi, the common person, to be worried about.

But all of those topics pale against the national furor over onions.

The daily drama of the onion market has, in recent weeks, sparked street protests, threatened the political future of a cabinet minister and caused new tension with Pakistan.

The problem began late last fall, when unseasonal monsoon rains caused a fungus in Maharashtrastate, the country's onion belt - and ruined the crop. The government's agricultural board was anticipating a record harvest, and neither it nor farmers picked up on the problem until too late; stored onion stocks were sold cheaply and exported in the autumn.

But there was no new harvest. The onion price quadrupled; the nation staggered.

Today a kilogram of onions in most city markets costs about 50 rupees - $2 - compared with half that much a year ago. Earlier this month, the price briefly broke through 100 rupees a kilogram, which made front page, banner headline news in papers in every language. Onion price inflation for January is running at 70 per cent thus far.

The prices hikes caused everything from protests at the village level to angry tirades with the "onion" hashtag in this Twitter-crazy country. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar was besieged by the opposition, who demanded he act on onions (he lost half his portfolio in a cabinet shuffle on Wednesday.)

Seeking to quell the outrage, the Indian government decided to import; Pakistan agreed to send onions. Hundreds of tons were trundled by truck up to the Wagah border crossing. Then, drama. In the typical war of words, it is not clear just what went wrong, but Pakistan said India would not let the onions in, India said Pakistan would not let them out, and the onions began to rot at the border.

Quick to suspect the worst, pundits here accused Pakistan of deliberately withholding to hit Indians in the soft spot of their tummies. Senior government officials on both sides exchanged sharp words.

"They were not sending," said Brahm Yadav, chairman of the Delhi Agricultural Marketing Board. "So we stopped our tomato. When they saw no tomatoes from India - then they said they would send onions. Now, they are sending."

Some Pakistani onions appear to have reached Delhi - Lalit Gupta, who plies a cart of fresh vegetables in a middle-class neighbourhood, said he has Pakistani onions for sale. "They're cheaper," he said - and that's a relief, since he has faced nothing but grouchy, griping customers for weeks now. "But they're also smaller, and not as ripe, and they don't taste as nice," he added, in what was either an expert opinion or a moment of belated national loyalty.

The sudden scarcity of onions - the vegetable which is the foundation of Indian cuisines from Kashmir to Kerala - has had a knock-on effect on the prices of all vegetables.

"What happened is that onions are a sensitive part of Indian diet, curries and all that - when onion prices started going up there was a general speculative pressure - so then tomatoes, cabbages, and all the others went up," explained Abhijit Sen, who sits on India's national Planning Commission and is a former member of the national agricultural board.

In the upscale restaurants of Delhi and Mumbai, chefs are eschewing the onion, saying the price hike is eating up as much as 15 per cent of profits. The pumpkin, a vegetable which Mr. Gupta confirmed remains mysteriously immune to price inflation, is suddenly having a star turn. Mahendra Khairiya, chef at the upscale Kothi Mem restaurant in Delhi, raised eyebrows across the city by announcing pumpkin puree would replace onion gravy on his menu. Onion pickles have been scrapped entirely.

The surging prices are tough for restaurant-goers in Delhi, but critically difficult for the 450 million Indians who live below the poverty line - $1.25 a day. The inflationary pressure threatens to undermine growth rates nationally, and will be a mounting challenge for the beleaguered central government in the coming months.

Dr. Sen said the central government's information systems had failed, by not noting the crop collapse in time, and that now the centre must try to ease the price pressures. "They must talk prices down - if you can squash price fevers in a sensitive place like Mumbai by bringing stores from elsewhere, it will have a psychological impact, and the media coverage will carry over to the rest of the country," he said.

Vegetable prices have caused the anticipated 6-per-cent inflation rate to shoot up to 17 per cent, nationally, Dr. Sen said. The price of milk, another staple in most kinds of Indian cooking, was up 18 per cent in December, and 24 per cent over the course of last year. Fuel prices are up 8 per cent over the past six months.

The trinity of flavours in Indian cooking

Together with garlic and ginger, onion is part of the trinity of flavours that form the base of much of India cuisine. As the BBC's India blogger Soutik Biswas exlains: "Onion is a vegetable that no Indian kitchen can do without. … It is a must for adding taste and crunch to many vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. It is eaten raw as a salad, pureed for flavouring and sauce for meats and garden vegetables; used as a dip; fried as fritters and crisps. Rustic medicinal beliefs have it that it has healing properties and reduces acidity. Indians believe onions cool the body in the searing hot summers and keep fungal infections away during muggy monsoons."

The exception: Adherents of Jainism, a small but influential religion based in India, are to practice non-violence toward all living things. As such, Jains are vegetarian, but also avoid root vegetables, including onions, because the harvest requires the plant be killed before the end of its life cycle.

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