Jun 20, 2014

Onion Price Rise: Bring Onions Under the Essential Commodities Act

Increasing onion prices had sent the experts, economists and the journalists looking for answers. For the past few days we have seen a flurry of activity, beginning with the media playing up the issue of rising prices of fruits and vegetables, and trying to create a fear psychosis among the people in the wake of a deficient monsoon that stares ahead. The Govt went into a tizzy examining various suggestions coming from economists and the bureaucrats, and finally the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley took the right decision. He directed the State Governments to crackdown on hoarders and speculators.

The State Governments need to be empowered by first bringing onions and potatoes under the Essential Commodities Act.

But the onion crisis came in handy for some economists to use the crisis situation to push what they have been trying to do for nearly a decade now. Remove fruits and vegetables from the APMC Act was on the top of the agenda, followed by lowering the import tariffs on fruits, vegetables, milk and chicken legs as the plausible solution for bringing down the prices. At a many a TV shows I encounter economists, who have probably never been to a crop field, seeking immediate imports of fruits and vegetables. And when I question the need saying India had a record foodgrain production in 2013-14, and also that of vegetables and fruits, many of them just continued to harangue the public of their ignorance.

A news report in Times of India (Despite record onion yield, prices shoot up. June 20, 2014. http://bit.ly/1qkf0Fy) says in 2013-14 India harvested 19.3 million tonnes of onions, which is 19 per cent higher than the previous crop. Even discounting the crop damage resulting from unseasonal rains and hailstorms, and knowing that the area under onion cultivation had soared by over 400 per cent in Gujarat and by about 15-20 per cent across the country, there is no reason why prices should have doubled in a week's time. In April and May 2014, onion price inflation was in the negative when it came under monitoring for estimating the Wholesale Price Index (WPI). Only a trader-agent nexus could drive the prices high in the next fortnight. And that's exactly what happened.

Economists merrily joined the speculation exercise. Not questioning the strong cartels that operate, their entire emphasis was to use the opportunity to allow cheaper imports. Some even went to the extent of wanting the Govt to allow onion imports to meet the expected shortfall. Others forced the Govt to raise the Minimum Export Price for onions, which I feel is a classic example of food mismanagement. Such ad hoc decisions only destroy the markets for the Indian exporters. Others of course pushed for more food processing, not telling that the prices of processed onions would be several times higher making it still a bigger burden on the poor as well and the middle class.

Nevertheless, I have always maintained that taming food inflation only requires a strong political will. It doesn't require more than a month to bring down the prices. All you need is to exercise a danda.

An interesting field report in The Economic Times (Onion Price Rise: Nashik Farmers Put Blame on Hoarders. June 20, 2014. http://bit.ly/1lNOoHz) says it all. "Amid apprehension of onion prices sky rocketing to Rs 100 per kg by October, farmers from India's largest onion fields in Nashik allege that traders are hoarding over 20 lakh tonnes of stocks in anticipation of rising demand during monsoon that will push the prices higher. According to the farmers, all these traders are part time politicians and they indulged in hoarding last year as well."

A year back, in my blog post Let's Chop the Onion Cartel (Aug 23, 2013. http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.in/2013/08/lets-chop-onion-cartel.html) I had said: "No political party wants to ruffle the traders with any stringent action. Traders hold the strings to the political purse, and a crackdown against hoarding and speculation would mean chopping off the financial cord." APMC has been monopolised by a handful of big wholesale traders who control almost all aspects of the onion trade or for that matter the entire vegetable trade. The answer however does not lie in dismantling APMC but reforming it.

Regarding de-listing fruits and vegetables from the APMC Act. After Rahul Gandhi had in January directed Congress Chief Ministers to remove vegetables/fruits from APMC Act, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have followed his directive. It will be interesting to know whether vegetable and fruit prices have come down in these States.

Further reading: 
1. The Onion Story: It was all planned. 

2. What a Stupid Idea. Dehydrated onions is not what Indians need.


Mahesh said...

Sir, more comments got swallowed on your previous post.
I have to bring to your attention that your blog theme is a resource and bandwidth hog. Not eco friendly. Takes long time to load, even with fast connection.

vizeet srivastava said...

Unless government bring infrastructure delisting Onions/Potato will not help majority of the farmers. Government should not waste money in Bullet Train which is loss making investment all over the world. I think unless government brings Onion/Potato under essential commodity act, the price rise/hoarding problem will remain there.

Shram Shikhar said...

Mehngai is The way of growth .We Are following this concept.what Are You think ... Give me your suggestion...your suggestion will be publish in our newspaper (Shramshikhar)

Bullet dealers in Himachal Pradesh said...

great post