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Column: How About A ‘Cold Store Mission’?

By Sandeep Sahu

The visuals say it all! A bag of onion falls off a truck carrying the stuff from Nasik to Sambalpur near Debahal in Bargarh district and there is a stampede of sorts!! People stop their cars bang in the middle of the road and start picking up as much of the onion strewn all over the road as they can before the manna from heaven runs out. The scene emphasizes the point that the impact of the onion crisis that has gripped the country for over three months now is not restricted only to the poor. After all, Rs 150 for a kg for an item we just can’t do without does make a big hole even in the pockets of the middle classes!

And the remedy found by the Centre to tide over the crisis – imports from countries like Turkey, Egypt and Afghanistan – has turned out to be worse than the disease itself. A piece of onion weighing 800 grams is unheard of in a country long used to the conventional stuff grown in the country. Forget consuming such king-sized onions, Odias had never heard of anything like that. Highly perishable commodity that onion is, it is hardly surprising that there are few takers for the onion imported from Turkey, not just in Odisha but across the nation. Several states have now expressed their reluctance to lift the onion imported by the Centre to tide over the crisis that has gripped the country for over three months now pushed prices of this kitchen essential heavenwards. When this is the situation when only 5, 000 tons out of the 45, 000 tons that India has placed orders for has come, one can only imagine what it would be like when the full consignment arrives. One doubts if those who placed the orders had a look at the stuff they were importing or thought about whether the consumers would buy it.

This is yet another instance of a lack of foresight, understanding of ground realities and proper management of the domestic onion market by both the Central and state governments. Otherwise, how does one explain away the soaring prices of onion in a country that is not just self-sufficient, but actually a surplus country in onion production? The total average annual consumption of onion in India is around 180 lakh tons while the total annual production stands at about 260 lakh tons. With that kind of production-consumption ratio, there is no good reason why there should be a shortage necessitating imports of onion. If such a situation arises in the country almost every second/third year, the reason has to be gross mismanagement of the onion market that creates the grounds for cartelization and manipulation of the market by a few big players rather than any weather phenomenon like deficient or excessive rains. While there is no denying the fact that unseasonal rains in Telangana and Karnataka have badly hit kharif production, the prolonged crisis has more to do with mismanagement of stocks than deficient production. Why, for example, did the government of India allow exports till the end of September when it should have been obvious long before that time that there is going to be a crisis soon?

Closer home, the Onion Mission launched amid great fanfare by the Odisha government in 2015 in a bid to increase onion production in the state has managed the incredible of bringing down output from 3.97 lakh tons in 2015-16 to 3.79 lakh tons in 2017-18! The idea was to increase acreage under onion as well as to set up enough cold stores to ensure that the stuff produced doesn’t rot and farmers get a remunerative price. But as in the case of the Potato Mission, another much-touted initiative by the state government, none of the objectives has been achieved four years down the line. A few months ago, we saw the rather unedifying spectacle of farmers selling their produce for prices as low as Rs 2/3 a kg ! In one fell swoop, all the sops and incentives offered to farmers to increase acreage under onion went down the drains. Who will take up onion cultivation after such an experience?

Can’t the state government forget, for the time being, all about the Potato and Onion Missions and start working on a Cold Store Mission, please? If there is the will, there is no reason why we can’t set up 5-10 cold stores every month so that we have well over a 100 cold stores in a year’s time. If the government can shout from the rooftops that it managed the incredible feat of putting together a marquee event like the Hockey World Cup in ‘90 days flat’, surely it can show the same sense of urgency in doing something that is a matter of life and death for lakhs of farmers. This single measure would ensure three things. First, it would ensure that farmers don’t have to distress sell their produce for a pittance and incur heavy losses in the process. Second, it would make sure prices in the state market don’t shoot through the roof even if crops fail in Nasik or Kurnool fail for some reason. Third, it would encourage more and more farmers to take to cultivation of this must-eat item for every Odia.

Once we have enough cold stores, we may even start thinking about growing onion in the kharif season too, instead of only in the rabi season as at present.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)

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