Within 11 days of imposing a ban on the export of onions, the powerful traders lobby forced the government to lift the ban. Succumbing to pressure from the onion traders, who normally cry hoarse in the name of farmers, the speed at which the onion trade made the government to bend backwards is a pointer to the monumental failure to curb food inflation.
For over 4 years now, ever since food inflation has hit the roof, I haven’t seen so much of political activity as I have observed in the last few days. Triggered by protest by
onion traders, who had refused to partake in daily auction to demonstrate their
anger against the sudden imposition of exports ban, the NCP chief Madhukar
Pichad had first written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Commerce
Minister Anand Sharma. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had deputed
his Agriculture Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-patil and some of his colleagues to
meet Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and other concerned ministers. Nasik
According to news reports, Prithviraj Chavan had himself lobbyed with Pranab Mukherjee and Anand Sharma seeking an immediate withdrawal of the ban on onion exports. Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar too had thrown his weight behind the agitating traders and had met Food Minister K V Thomas to impress upon him the need to allow onion exports. He had forcefully argued in favour of onion exports at the meeting of the empowered Group of Minister (eGoM) on Tuesday. Knowing the strength Sharad Pawar wields in UPA II, it was expected that the government will give in.
After the much-awaited eGoM that met under the chairmanship of Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday, Food Minister K V Thomas announced the lifting of the ban subject to a minimum export price (MEP) of $475/tonne. While no quantitative restrictions were announced, the high MEP is expected to act as a damper on onion exports. Seeing the steady rise in open market onion prices for a month or so, the MEP had been steeply raised by $ 200/tonne within a span of a month. In mid-August, the MEP stood at $ 275/tonne.
The high MEP certainly has not dampened the spirit of the exporters who have merrily resumed the daily auction operations in
There are reasons to understand the panic the Food Ministry must be under when it decided to impose a ban on onion exports. Knowing well the stupendous rise in the prices of onions in the retail market just a few months back, when for no justifiable reasons the consumer prices had swung to a high of Rs 80/kg, the Food Ministry was certainly being over-cautious. Heavy rains in the last week of August had further slowed down transportation of bulbs from
Maharashtra, thereby adding to the
woes of the consumers In mid-August, Food Ministry first tried to restrict exports
by raising the MEP by $45 to bring it $275/tonne, but it failed to control the retail
prices. And when open market prices increased to Rs 25/kg, the panic button was
For the past three years, September has been the worrying month. Last year, heavy exports undertaken in September were blamed for the subsequent shortfall in onion availability in December when a sudden jerk in prices had brought tears in the eyes of the consumers. When onion prices had jumped from Rs 35/kg to Rs 60/kg in retail last year, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma had said that the price rise was because of hoarding as the country had enough stocks. This year too, when onion prices had begun to show its head, Anand Sharma is on record saying that the price rise is because of hoarding. I remember when the government went into a tizzy last year, the Nafed chief had expressed surprise at the price rise. He told the media that there was roughly 20 per cent more supply, and despite the rain damage to the standing crop in September, the price rise defies any logic.
The legitimate question that follows is then why is the government unable to crackdown on hoarders. More so at a time when onion production was estimated to be at record 145.62 lakh tonnes last year. This year, the crop is still better and estimates point to an overall production of 151.36 lakh tonnes.
Now, let us look at how politics is defining the rise in onion prices. Before even the prices had stabilised to Rs 50-60 per kg last year, Anand Sharma had met some of his fellow cabinet colleagues and impressed upon them the need to support the opening up of multi-brand retail. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P Chidambaram and Defence Minister A K Anthony had taken part in these discussions. Why the urgency? Anand Sharma had replied: “Policy formation is a dynamic process, and we are very progressive and forward-looking.”
In fact, he also met the media the same day (Dec 23) to inform them about the dynamics of multi-brand retail. According to a news report: “While Mr Sharma rejected the argument that there was a link between the soaring onion prices and the opening up of multi-brand retail to foreign direct investment, the demand for liberalising the sector has been intensifying, especially in the wake of wide gap between the wholesale prices and retail prices.” It was therefore quite apparent that the onion price hike in Dec 2010-jan 2011 was a manipulation to justify the approval for FDI in multi-brand retail.
September-October is generally a lean period for onions. Its arrival in the mandis slackens during these months, and to meet the market demand traders maintain enough stocks from April onwards. With the arrival of the new crop in the second half of October, prices generally ease. Knowing the seasonality of the production cycle, the Food Ministry should have waited for a little more time before the sudden knee-jerk action of banning exports. Such ad hoc decisions when it comes to commodity exports results in a loss of confidence among importers as a result of which the trade suffers. More often than not, exports only help traders whereas onion farmers continue to be paid a fraction.
This brings me back to the original question why the government has been unable to control food inflation. Well, looking at the way the onion traders have forced the government to retract its ban order, the fact remains that I haven’t seen so much of political activity at any time on the issue of price rise. The reason is obvious. No political party wants to ruffle the traders with any stringent action. Traders hold the key to the political purse, and a crackdown against hoarding and speculation would mean chopping off the financial cord. We must therefore learn to live with food inflation.