India Isn’t Letting a Single Onion Leave the Country

 

ImageAn onion market in Lasalgaon, near Nashik, India.
CreditCreditAtul Loke for The New York Times

By Jeffrey Gettleman, Julfikar Ali Manik and

NEW DELHI — Truckloads of onions are being turned back at the Indian border. Officials are threatening raids to prevent onion smuggling. India’s neighbors, reliant on hundreds of millions of pounds of the crop, are reeling from the news: Not a single onion can leave India.

Hit first by drought and then by monsoon rains, India suffered an onion shortage that nearly tripled the price in recent months, edging close to a third rail of politics in many countries: the national diet.

In India, onions — so important to the cuisine all around the country and across South Asia — are central to foreign policy and domestic harmony alike. Indian governments have been brought down over inflated food prices before.

“Without onions, food is incomplete and colorless,” lamented Charu Singh, a researcher in New Delhi. “I’ve had to change my entire cooking style.”

With joblessness rising and India’s economic woes piling up, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to tackle the onion shortage this week. Not only did his administration ban onion exports, it is also cracking down on onion hoarding. Retailers and wholesalers now have strict limits on what they can keep on hand. They have to sell the rest.

The move showed where Mr. Modi is ultimately most vulnerable: the economy.

Outside the country, he has been harshly criticized for his decision to strip Kashmir of its autonomy, send in thousands of troops and effectively cut off much of the disputed territory from the outside world.

His Hindu nationalist government has also pursued an aggressive campaign in northeastern India that threatens to strip hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Muslims, of their citizenship.

But to many people here in India, issues like the price of onions matter most. And the onion crunch comes on top of a series of worrying economic signs. Automakers, biscuit bakers and even the underwear industry have endured their worst year in a long while, with thousands of layoffs looming and no clear turnaround in sight.

Mr. Modi’s decision to circle the wagons around the country’s onion crop and bring prices down is starting to soften the impact on consumers. But it threatens to worsen his long-running dispute with farmers, who say they are often forced to sell their crops at rock-bottom prices to keep city dwellers happy.

And there are the foreign policy implications: India’s neighbors are suffering, and angry.

In Dhaka, the teeming capital of Bangladesh, the price of onions is out of control, jumping 700 percent in recent months and doubling in the past week alone.

One street vendor said people were so angry at him for his prices that they called him a “bandit.”

To spare himself the stress, he said he just stopped selling onions. Other vendors have done the same. In the past few days, onions have vanished from many of Dhaka’s streets.

Onions are one of those flavors that have no real substitute. They go into almost every curry.

“The onion is now like the gold of the kitchen market,” said Mohammad Bilash, a restaurant manager.

Mr. Bilash said he had to drastically cut down the amount of chopped onion he sprinkled into his famous biryani, a rice dish. “Cooking biryani without onion is impossible,” he proclaimed.

In Nepal, people are hunkering down for a long and grueling onion crisis. Last year, the country imported 370 million pounds of Indian onions. Now the onions aren’t coming in.

On Tuesday, at the Kalimati market in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, where countless bins were heaped with eggplants, green beans, limes, carrots and tomatoes, there were lots of long faces and creased foreheads.

“We can’t make onions in factories, and local production is minimal,” said Bijaya Shrestha, the market’s spokesman. “Our only option is to eat less onion.”

Some people mused about importing from China. Chinese onions, said K.C. Tara, a vegetable seller, tend to be “big and flashy.”

“But people don’t like Chinese onion,” she said.

Onions have been a huge export for India, at the top of the list of fresh fruits and vegetables that the nation sells abroad. According to government statistics, India exported nearly five billion pounds last fiscal year.

In just the past two days, since the government announced the export ban, retail onion prices — which were 25 rupees per kilogram a few months ago, before rising to 70 rupees last week — have fallen to 50 rupees. This has provided relief to urban consumers like Mrs. Singh, who has had to put up with her mother’s complaints about the new taste of her curry.

But as prices have begun falling again, it has created stress for Indian farmers. They blame the onion price inflation on the weather. First it was droughts, and then pounding rains, that ruined their crop, they say.

“The farmer never gets a fair deal,” said Krishna Hiraman Rawat, a third-generation farmer in central India’s onion belt. “It’s always the middleman, the trader and retailer who is king.”

Protests by farmers, in part over government policies that kept prices low, were an active worry for Mr. Modi this year in his re-election campaign. He has promised more assistance for farmers. But his government is heavily vested in keeping food prices low.

In central India’s onion-growing areas, farmers have halted auctions, staged protests and even blocked highways in a sign of their fury. Many already felt that Mr. Modi had forgotten them, failing to live up to his promises to help farmers.

Indian officials say the new restrictions are critical to prevent hoarding by traders. They said the rules would remain in place until the domestic supply increased.

Some people had suspected that onion traders were playing games with the supply, holding back onions from the market to drive prices up. But farmers insist that is not the case.

Mr. Modi’s economic team has done much better controlling inflation than previous Indian governments. But economists said that in the past six months, consumer prices have been rising faster than they have in years, especially in urban areas.

With major Hindu holidays coming up, the Modi administration has been watching the prices of staples very closely.

“When onion prices hike up before festival season,” said Himanshu, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who goes by one name on his résumé, “governments get into panic mode.”

Other analysts agreed that the government was under heavy pressure to act.

“This is a politically motivated decision,” said Ashok Gulati, an eminent agricultural economist. “You sacrifice the smaller vote bank of farmers for the much larger vote bank of onion consumers.”

Jeffrey Gettleman and Suhasini Raj reported from New Delhi, India, and Julfikar Ali Manik from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Sameer Yasir contributed from New Delhi, Vindu Goel from Mumbai and Bhadra Sharma from Kathmandu, Nepal.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: India Declares Ban on Exports For a Key Crop: Its Onions. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

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