A lachrymose matter

A lachrymose matter

The shortage of onions, it emerges, is a seasonal and universal tear-jerker and one that seems to be as cyclical as, say, the movement in prices of metals such as aluminium or copper, which are very cyclical commodities indeed.

The shortages, for whatever reason, are usually accompanied by an increase in prices of the vegetable, which is used across cuisines, although some orthodox Hindus in India consider it an unclean vegetable because it grows under the ground. India has witnessed onion shortages in the late 1990s, and, again, the mid-2000s. The 1990s one, acutely felt in the state of Delhi, possibly resulted in a change of government. Globally, there was a shortage in 2008 in the UK; in South Africa in 2006; Russia and East Europe in early 2010; and parts of East Africa in mid 2010. And the US has seen prices of onions going up, in various parts of the country, through 2010.

While there are several layers to the story, the main reason for the shortage of onions, in any part of the world, and over the years, would appear to be the vulnerability of the onion crop to adverse weather conditions, and diseases. Ironically, the vegetable itself can stay months without refrigeration, and is considered a preventive against several minor and major ailments with the notable exception of bad breath.

The reasons for the current shortage aren’t known.

One school of thought attributes it to a poor and a late kharif crop, largely because of rains and infestations—especially a fungus—actually being caused by the rains. There is a similar shortage, for similar reasons, in South Australia. The kharif, or autumn crop, is usually harvested in September or November.

Another attributes it to prolific exports that have since been banned, although data from National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd doesn’t support this claim (it actually shows a dip of around 20% in exports). And still others, to hoarding.

The good news for the country, and all its onion eaters, is that the autumn crop accounts for only 40% of onion production in India. The spring, or rabi, crop accounts for 60%. Which means things should get better next year.

What can the government do to cool onion prices? Tell us at views@livemint.com