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Letters From India

Having to Do With the Price of Onions

A sharp rise recently in the price of onions in India is about a lot more than just sandwiches. When onions are up, even governments are at risk.

Credit: McKay Savage.

One fine Saturday evening, a friend takes me to the end of Hill Road, near Bandra Station, to introduce me to her favorite Bombay sandwich. We hover over the cart to watch the vendor’s every move.

First, he smears a dollop of butter on a piece of bread. On that bed of butter, he layers coriander chutney, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, more butter, potato masala, plain potato, and likely one or two things I missed. He heats the masterpiece in a handheld toaster for five minutes, then tops it with shredded cheese. But no onions. I nudge my friend to point out that the cart shows no sign of onions. She, blessed with more Hindi than me, asks the man about it. He shrugs. I know his response before the translation. A sandwich-wallah can’t be bothered to add onions when they are approaching the 100-rupee mark.

Not a day passes that I don’t discover something unique about this Indian life. Soon, I become the woman who bothers everyone with questions about onions.

I can’t ask just anyone. I’ve been advised many times not to strike up conversations with male strangers. I’m surrounded by people whose finances allow them to be unaware that there is anything to worry about in the onion markets. People shout at me in Hindi and Marathi and other languages I have no chance of recognizing. The communities who could contribute the most to a conversation on the state of the onion are precisely the ones I cannot access. Language divides. Class divides. Politics divide. And yes, in India, onions take on political importance.

 

Without breaking the conversation, everyone but me proceeded to eat the onion slices as if they were potato chips. I tried not to gape.

While all vegetables have become more expensive this year, the most dramatic change has been for onions. In August, Mumbai saw prices more than double, with some markets selling at 80 rupees per kilo. Elementary economics would tell you that prices are up because of a reduced supply, and indeed, this year’s production of 16.65 million tons is down 4.8 percent from 17.5 million last year, partly because less land was farmed and partly because a heavy monsoon season damaged output in the western states, the heart of India’s onion production.

The people aren’t taking the rising price lightly. When August showed no signs of relief, armed robbers looted a truck transporting 40 tons of onions on the Jaipur-Delhi highway. A few days later, reports surfaced of another robbery in Rajasthan’s Nagaur district. Desperate, India made moves to import onions from Pakistan for the first time since 2010’s onion crisis. What are neighbors for, if not to come to the rescue when you need a bowl of sugar? Or in this case, several thousand tons of onions. But as the huge demand from India spiked the price within Pakistan as well, the latter banned exports to its neighbor. A 24-ton shipment arrived from Afghanistan instead. And additional relief, albeit fleeting, came from within India itself, when Groupon launched a wildly popular weeklong special: one kilo of onions for the low, low price of nine rupees.

In the ladies’ section of the Mumbai Local one evening, an auntie hints at the political importance of the price increase, while reviving an old joke. “Onions are bringing tears to everyone’s eyes in Maharashtra,” she says, adding, “They can and have toppled governments, you know!”

“It’s nuts,” a friend down south tells me, “I can’t even imagine biryani or chaat without fresh onions.” When I visit Hyderabad a couple of weeks later, we pick up a biryani family pack from Paradise and find the usual side of sliced onions missing. The sandwich-wallahs aren’t the only ones cutting back; even the world-famous biryani restaurant is skimping.

“Not everyone in India eats onions,” a Mumbaikar points out, “So everyone just needs to chill because we can still cook Indian food without onions.” An evening spent lost in an internet wormhole confirms he is right. Many Jains, Krishna devotees, and Vaishnavas avoid onions altogether. According to classic Ayurveda, foods belong to one of three categories: sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic. Sattvic foods—for instance, fruits, legumes, and dairy products from well-treated cows—are associated with goodness, steadiness, and purity. Onions and other alliaceous plants like leeks and chives are rajasic or tamasic, to be avoided because they are believed to boost passion and ignorance or indifference.

Make no mistake: The onion-averse groups are undoubtedly in the minority in India.

When I arrived here a little more than a year ago, the first occasion on which I felt anything close to culture shock had nothing to do with competing against goats for roadside real estate, nor with noting the long list of what a woman should not do, say, or wear. Instead it was onions, a plate full of them.

On my first day, colleagues in Hyderabad treated me to lunch at Chutney’s restaurant, an establishment they deemed a must-visit for anyone new to the city. As one waiter took our order to the kitchen, another set down a plate of sliced, raw red onions accompanied by fresh lime and cayenne. I had no time to guess why. Without breaking the conversation, everyone but me reached for a wedge of lime, squeezed the juice onto the thin rings, and proceeded to eat the onion slices as if they were potato chips. They were crunchy, too. I tried not to gape. Why would anyone snack on raw onions? Little did I know then what the onion means to this country.

 

Asked to describe what the onion tastes like, most people don’t know where to start—sweet at first, pungent, tangy, perhaps cooling—but all of my friends here confirm its importance without hesitation. Sautéed onions make up the base for most of India’s spice-friendly dishes. Many poor laborers survive on raw onion paired with roti, chili, and salt. Maharashtra, the state that produces most of India’s onions, is home to a national government institute dedicated to research on the bulbous root, and a 29-member nationwide network of centers is working to develop region-specific varieties and new farming technology. In all, the country consumes 16.5 million tons of onions a year. It’s no surprise, then, that the onion price is considered an indicator of the India’s economic health.

Where economics play, so do politics. Waiting for my morning coffee at Lower Parel’s Café Zoe, I scan the high table, where the staff has laid out about a dozen of the day’s papers. Among this spread, I spot headlines blaring that the price surge is threatening the incumbent Congress Party’s bid in the upcoming elections. Parliament is debating price-control mechanisms: imports from China and Iran, export bans, and the like. I come across one paper reporting the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has taken to selling onions at two-thirds the market price outside a party office in North Delhi. Meanwhile, the government maintains the role of Reassurance Extraordinaire. There will be relief soon—in a couple of weeks, perhaps!—they continue to say. And they will continue to say it, because the auntie on the train wasn’t kidding about onions overthrowing governments.

It’s no new trick for political parties to sell onions at deep discounts in stalls across major cities, especially in the capital, New Delhi. The usual story is that the public criticizes the group in power for failing to control onion prices, and opposition parties rally to relieve—or rather, appear to relieve—the plight. The government blames the rains for destroying crops; the opposition blames the government for not thinking ahead and importing additional supplies. Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 by attacking the incumbent in this way, wielding garlands of onions at political rallies as a constant reminder of the government’s failure. And in 1998, election commentators attributed the Bharatiya Janata Party’s grand losses in part to a spike in onion prices that raised skepticism among the common people a month before the vote. So it goes.

No one understands why I am so curious to know about the politics of onions. But as I am armed with headline tidbits for conversation starters, more and more people make time to deliver answers with their quizzical looks. I never again run into the auntie who tried to tell me about the politics of it all, but the Mumbai Local isn’t short of aunties eager to tell you exactly how the world works. After the morning rush but before lunchtime, board the slow train at Bandra Station and ride it all the way to Churchgate. Refer to a recent event, name-drop a politician or two, and cast your questions patiently. The aunties know all.

Much of the public speculation about an impending onion crisis blames wholesale traders who allegedly hoard supply. They, of course, deny this. Yet, it is no secret that these middlemen between farmers and major retailers lack transparency and have a history of manipulating markets. In fact, it’s the first thing I learned when I started my current post. Most farmers tend to small holdings of less than two hectares, thus having little bargaining power. Mobile technologies, especially SMS-based information services, are increasingly popular and have made it easier for farmers to gauge pricing patterns in different regions. These days, farmers don’t deliver goods to procurement centers unless they have an idea of the price. Speculating to win a better one, they may hold stocks until the next day or week. However, poor post-harvest technologies and limited storage facilities prevent them from hoarding produce for long enough, or in quantities large enough, to cause a notable shift in the market. In the end, farmers play a minimal role in determining prices and are at the mercy of the traders.

 

A work trip takes me on a visit to Narayangaon in Maharashtra’s Pune district. The day’s objective is to take a break from the office cave and get a sense for what things look like out in the field. No trainings to deliver, no reports to file, just exposure and that’s about it. Farmers in the area have organized into a cluster to supply to retailers, and our guides for the day are the cluster manager and one of the lead farmers.

Onions on onions on onions, I tell you—huge sacks of them stacked up to 10 high, a group of men seated on a shorter stack taking a break from loading, and three-wheelers so packed I wonder how the tires manage to bear the weight.

After nearly four hours cooped up in a car, we unload at our first stop: an onion market. The cluster manager, Amol, starts to explain the collection times and distribution process, but he doesn’t finish before we start in with our questions. How many kilos of onions go through here each day? How many farmers supply to this market? Who determines the prices? Do these onions go to Mumbai? I try to note key facts in my phone but give up quickly. It’s rude to appear as if I am busy texting when these men are taking time out of their day to school us ignorant city people. Mostly, though, I can’t keep up and get distracted taking in the scene around us. It is nothing like any vegetable market I have ever seen. Onions on onions on onions, I tell you—huge sacks of them stacked up to 10 high, a group of men seated on a shorter stack taking a break from loading, and three-wheelers so packed I wonder how the tires manage to bear the weight.

What do we have by the time we return to the car? More questions than answers, more translations than illumination, and one worn-out guide.

Our next stop is a demonstration farm, a plot where farmers gather to learn about new cultivation methods and technologies. Standing in a field lined with row after row of cabbage and eggplants and tomatoes, I wonder the sort of things recovering economics majors wonder: Where do all these vegetables end up? What exchanges happen between here and there? “It’s no walk in the park feeding 1.27 billion people,” I say to no one in particular. A few nod and scrunch their faces in a way that almost convinces me I can hear them thinking. It’s clear I’m not the only one full of questions. On the way home I hope that between the six of us, there would be enough retained facts to answer all of them. Regardless, I decide a second visit is in order.

A few weeks go by before I manage to reconnect with Amol. He sounds equally as eager to educate on the phone as he was in person. I say I need another day to gather all my questions, so as not to waste his time. He says he may need a couple of days to gather answers. As is customary around here, time expands and multiplies, and so too must your patience. Nearly a month passes before our exchanges are fruitful.

“In Maharashtra,” he says, “There are two main onion growing seasons: rabi and kharif.” The kharif season begins in June, with the harvest usually expected by the end of September. Rabi onions are grown from the end of October to November or December, depending on plot size and irrigation resources. Markets see the harvest by the end of March or April. Rabi is a longer growing season, covers a larger area, and yields onions that keep for seven to eight months. What we’ve been dealing with these past few months is the deficient or delayed harvest of the lower-yielding and more perishable kharif season.

Most vegetables sold in Mumbai come from farms in Pune and Nashik districts. Nashik is home to Lasalgaon, the country’s—and for that matter Asia’s—largest onion market; generally supply in Nashik determines prices nationwide. When I ask about the rumors that Maharashtran traders have been hoarding supply to artificially increase the price, he doesn’t comment. He does add, however, that the government did not ban exports this year, thereby helping farmers get higher prices.

I am sure I didn’t catch more than a few facts he tried to relay, and I have yet to get a chance to return to Narayangaon. Even so, by the time Amol and I complete a round of questions and answers, I know more about onions than I do about any other food item.

 

Two months in, I declared the best part of living in India the luxury of impermanence—that I would stay here by choice to claw through it all and learn what I must to adjust, but that I could leave it behind anytime I want. Now that I’ve passed the one-year mark and presumably am wiser, the best part is that there is still so much clawing—learning—to do. Onions today. Politics tomorrow. Perhaps even Hindi in the near future.

While in Hyderabad I claimed I didn’t learn Hindi because the community I worked with largely functioned in Telugu and broken English, and I wasn’t planning to stay long anyway. Now having set up home in Mumbai, where Hindi’s cadence follows me every hour of every day, I’m ashamed to admit that after months of living and working here, my language skills remain limited to a list of vegetables. Yet, with talks of an onion crisis floating about the city’s trains and vegetable markets, I am pleased to have added another item to that list: pyaz—the most important one. 

Karolle Rabarison is at home wherever she can satisfy her coffee habit. She currently lives in Bombay. More by Karolle Rabarison