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Tuesday 21, January 2020
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Leaving a bad taste

Good for Nirmala Sitharaman if she doesn’t eat much onion.

Good for Nirmala Sitharaman if she doesn’t eat much onion. But as Finance Minister of a country of 1.2 billion people, for the majority of whom onion is the kitchen staple, her insensitivity towards the skyrocketing price of the humble bulb crop leaves a bad taste. While this comment made by her during a debate in Parliament prompted the opposition to call it her ‘Marie Antoinette moment’, the common man, already burdened by inflation, is not amused. With the Jharkhand Assembly elections under way, the issue has the potential to snowball and even cost the ruling party electorally. The BJP, having been stung earlier, should know. Its government in Delhi was ousted in 1998 to a large extent due to popular outrage over the spurt in onion prices. 

As the price of onion crosses the Rs 100 per kg mark across the states, both farmers and consumers — a huge constituency — are teary-eyed. Having procured the present stock in the last rabi season for a pittance, it is only the middlemen who are making a killing. That such sudden surges in the prices of basic vegetables — onions, tomatoes, potatoes — have become a regular feature speaks poorly of the politico-economic response that swings around tweaking import and export norms. Fulfilling the PM’s poll promise of doubling farmers’ income requires assiduous steps to lift the agri-market. It is bogged down with hoarding, official incompetence and nexus with traders ramping up prices. In addition, proper storage and farm insurance reaching the beneficiaries are vital to cushion another bane of peasants: errant weather. 

To maintain a balance between ensuring a remunerative price to the growers and lid on retail rates, the farmers need to get a safety net in times of glut. Efforts to encourage them to tie up with food technology investors have not yielded the desired result. Export and domestic use of processed, dehydrated onions as flakes, powder and granules can help see the end of distress sales. There's many a layer, yet, to be peeled off.

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