Onions Are Making News Again!
Whenever Allium Cepa L, the botanical name of the commodity in question—onion—breaches the Rs 50/kg mark, review meetings, action plans, press statements and monitoring teams are set up. Instructions are issued to market committees, SAFAL, Nafed and Kendriya Bhandars and Civil Supplies departments to open outlets for selling onions at zero margins, or even at subsidised rates in JJ clusters. Demands for banning exports and opening imports are raised, and many shed (onion) tears. If the electronic media does not have any other ‘Breaking News’ in hand, this comes in handy, and visuals move to the push cart vendor and the harassed housewife struggling to make both ends meet.
However, this column is expected to take a nuanced view on the subject. Why are onion prices high at some points of time, especially during monsoons, and at the end of the year? Is it really possible to hoard onions, and dictate their prices across the length and breadth of the country? Are the traders of Azadpur price takers, or price setters? Is more money to be made when the volumes are high, or when prices have peaked? Who gains in these transactions is a moot point—for the loser is the consumer, for sure!
For beginners, some home truths about onion. There are three crops per year: Rabi, Kharif and Late Kharif. While Rabi accounts for over 60 per cent of the production, early Kharif and late Kharif account for twenty per cent each. The transition periods are marked by price spikes—because while there is now a pan Indian market for this commodity, we still have a long way to go in spreading the production across states and seasons. Thus the Rabi crop of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka is harvested between March to May, and this constitutes the bulk of the onion production in the country. This is the onion which is amenable for storage—and can hold out till the onset of monsoon. The early Kharif onion starts appearing from August in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and AP, followed by Maharashtra and Gujarat in September and October. In the rest of the country, including UP, Punjab, West Bengal and Odhisha, the output comes in November and December. Late Kharif harvesting takes place from January to March in Maharashtra and Gujarat. In the hill regions of the country also, we have two crops every year—a Rabi crop in June-July, and a summer crop in September. Thus we see that every region in the country does have some availability of onion throughout the year, and of course in so far as the consumer is concerned, together with the potato, this is amongst the commonest horticulture commodity retailed in the country. Anecdotally, there are more than one million outlets which sell onion in our country, almost every single day of the year!
Where do we stand in the domain of onions if a global comparison was to be made? Well, with a production of 15 -16 million MT every year, we are the world’s second largest producer of onion, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the global pie. China occupies the top position with a production of nearly 30 per cent of global production, which also means that half the production (and consumption) of this crop takes place in these two countries. However, like most other things, this is not really a laurel to be proud of, for we are way behind the global leaders in so far as productivity is concerned. With a productivity of 56 MT per hectare, USA is better than Netherlands which also records an impressive 52 MT per hectare, both of which are way ahead of China at 24 MT per hectare, and India at 14 MT per hectare.
Therefore as in other crops and commodities, our biggest challenge is the yield gap. How do we ensure irrigation, planting material, extension services, harvest and post-harvest management practices—and finally the movement along the value chain to ensure that we make our mark in this sector as well? Here, one can draw solace from disaggregated data about production and productivity trends throughout the country. District level data from Aurangabad in Maharashtra and Probandar in Gujarat records a yield of 56 and 40 MT per hectare respectively, which is commendable. This is followed by Shajjapur in MP with 35 MT per hectare. However, these exceptions prove the story—neglect of our extension systems and the failure to evolve a mechanism to ensure that all the expertise of the ICAR system gets translated onto the farmer’s field.
Some questions may well be asked. Why has this not been done so far? The answer may bring tears to your eyes: because extending support to vegetables in open field conditions was not admissible under the NHM norms. Now that support to vegetable production has been included within the gamut of NHM, many new potential regions will be taken up-especially in the Kharif and late Kharif seasons because this is the time when production is at its lowest, and prices at the highest. The states identified for this include UP, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, Assam and Tamil Nadu. The effort would be to spread the production to lean months, and across the country. This accompanied with a chain of old storages at all levels, will ensure that the crop brings joy to both the farmer and the consumer!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)