Stars and tears in eyes
S Madhusudhana Rao - Tongue in Cheek - One phenomenon that eludes rational explanation is the price of onion, a bulbous vegetable which is part of everybody’s diet unless the eater vows not to consume it for religious or health reasons. The aphrodisiac properties attached to it make it untouchable for celibates or for those who want to give up some earthly pleasure for heavenly bliss. But they are in a minority.
One phenomenon that eludes rational explanation is the price of onion, a bulbous vegetable which is part of everybody’s diet unless the eater vows not to consume it for religious or health reasons. The aphrodisiac properties attached to it make it untouchable for celibates or for those who want to give up some earthly pleasure for heavenly bliss. But they are in a minority. The majority of Indians and others in the Sub-continent as well as in the Middle East and certain parts of Africa love to munch it raw with accompaniments while others relish it -- cooked, fried, boiled and mixed with other vegetables.
In normal days, the lowly, pungent bulbs are available aplenty and in onion-growing areas they are sold not by kilos but by sacks. But when the onion falls on days of scarcity, it rules the roost. From ministers to minions, everyone is concerned about the rising prices of onions and those who have enough foresight buy them in bulk and store them.
We can’t really call it hoarding because, after all, the person who is indulging in bulk-buying is trying to take care of himself and the family from the pocket-pinching and wallet-emptying prices of onions. Only if he starts selling the commodity at exorbitant prices after hoarding tonnes of onions, to cash in on the crisis, can one accuse him of fleecing the buyer. Unfortunately, the aam aadmi does not have that foresight and cannot look beyond his nose. But it smells when something is afoul and eyes begin watering when they go to the market to buy a kilo of onions.
Why do we face this periodical crisis? There are umpteen reasons. Some of these proffered by leaders and officials don’t cut many onions: Crop failure (none can question it); unseasonal rains (blame them on the Rain God); exports ignoring domestic demand (dollar is more precious than onion); and simply a seasonal problem (really?). For a decade or so, we have had the onion crisis; first, once in two-three years and later almost every year. And, curiously, most of the time the crisis visits us, like a comet, just before the general elections.
There may not be any celestial link between onions and their shooting prices at a time when voters are about to make their choices but it looks mysterious.
The mystery lies in not anticipating shortages and allowing the market forces and hoarders to have a field day and let the prices soar as high as possible. Once they reach the sky, planners start thinking of remedial measures by way of imports from neighbouring countries like China and Pakistan and as far as Iran. The problem is not the price but the onion quality and its shelf life. If buyers could recall, many consignments of imported onions were rejected because either the onions had rotten by the time they reached our shores or been found unsuitable for human consumption after reaching the market yards. In some cases, they were found inferior in quality to locally produced varieties.
In fact, the Indian onion is said to taste better (stronger punch) than others and in overseas markets it commands a premium over others. The smell and the taste are the two overriding factors for rejecting the imported stuff. That begs us to ask the government why it can’t avert a crisis of sorts beforehand. To understand the truth, probably, we have to start peeling off an edifice called government layer by layer.
If we are crying hoarse about onion price and official inability to check it, the government is croaky about people’s perpetual hunger for gold. According to the latest report from the World Gold Council, India’s yellow fever had devoured 310 tonnes of precious metal in the second quarter of this year ending June, highest in a decade.
The irony is the steep rise in consumption comes despite the government’s measures to curb imports and an increase in gold price. That means Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s appeals to people not to buy gold to help the country save foreign exchange and various steps taken to make pure gold and jewellery prohibitively costly have fallen on deaf ears. Besides gold being an instrument of investment, a lot of money, both black and white, goes into ornaments and jewellery. India doesn’t produce any gold worth accountable. On the other hand, it imports, and this year’s quantity is estimated to be between a whopping 900 and 1,000 tonnes. It is anybody’s guess how much money will be flowing out because of our gold craze.
The lure of gold is eternal, no doubt, and stars can be seen in the eyes of buyers as tears when they buy onions now. Gold and onions don’t mix and can’t be compared except in one sense: While the former is ‘adornable’ the latter is delectable. Both are dear to us, in every sense!