Column: Of Onions and Potatoes

By Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Onion scarcity has turned into a national crisis with soaring prices practically having forced the Indian kitchen staple out of the middle class kitchens. Acute shortage of the bulb is spawning jokes and parodies which have flooded the social media in the last few weeks. “Ye pyaz haemin kis mod pe le aya” ( see where has this onion brought us?) wrote one of the wits, a take-off on a popular Bollywood song.

The crisis in Odisha appears to be worse in terms of prices with onion reportedly selling in some areas for Rs.200 per kg, an unparalelled dubious double century. But the state government has conveniently sought to hide its failure in checking the prices behind the emerging ‘national crisis’ scenario. Having failed to stabilise the prices through its own ‘controlled price’ outlets it is pointing to the crop failure in major producing states like Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra where unseasonal rains are said to have played havoc.

The crisis has immediately acquired a political dimension with BJP-led NDA’s critics pointing accusing fingers at the Centre. Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal has openly blamed the Centre for stopping the supply of onions at a controlled price. Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has expressed his helplessness in fighting “ Nature.”

Odisha government, however, cannot hide behind similar excuses having claimed earlier that the state was onion surplus. A media report has quoted agriculture and farmers’ empowerment department’s statistics to show that the state produced nearly 3.78 lakh tonnes of onion in 2018-19 against the requirement of around three lakh tonnes. So either the figures have been fudged or the crisis is artificial.

This apart farmers in the state’s onion growing belt have been complaining about lack of government support, especially the acute shortage of cold storages for preserving the crop. One would recall that in 2015 the then agriculture minister, Pradeep Maharathy had assured to set up 300 cold storages in a bid to bring down the prices of onions.

The government had then also promised 50 percent subsidy to entrepreneurs for setting up these storages facilities as lack of adequate storage space was forcing the farmers to resort to distress sale of onions. He had admitted that due to unavailability of adequate storage space farmers were selling their surplus crop to traders in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.

The bulk of state’s own onion produce comes from Bolangir, Kalahandi and Angul districts but trade sources reveal that 80 percent of the crop from the first two districts is diverted to Raipur which is the nearest wholesale market available to the farmers of this region. In the absence of required storage facility distress sale is common.

This is a sad commentary on the state of our agriculture with the government singularly failing to protect the interest of farmers irrespective of which crop they have been growing. Like onions the government’s mission potato is also mired in problems. As for paddy, the staple crop of the state, its distress sale in several parts of western Odisha is a well known fact. The government must rise to the occasion and save our farmers from certain doom.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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)