Onion: getting out of pungent dependency

Farida Akhter | Published: 00:00, Nov 05,2019


ONION became news headlines during September–October this year. It paused for a while as other critical issues such as Dengue fever, Riffat murder case and Ayesha Siddiqa Minni’s bail rejections, Chhatra League leaders Shovon-Rabbani’s corruption, anti-biotics in milk, casino raids etc. came to the fore. Onions were considered having such an economic value that Facebook satires were made with gamblers placing onions on table rather than money. The reason was simple — the price of onion rose from Tk 30 to Tk 110 per kg (i.e., became more than a Euro and USD per kilo).

Onion is a simple, common and necessary ingredient for cooking, used both as spice and vegetable. Thinking that onion is just a culinary concern or kitchen issue is wrong. Evidence from the past month’s newspaper headlines affirms that it is no less important than any other economic and political issue. Secondly, it is a cross-border phenomenon that indicates how Indian domestic decisions can directly control the domestic economy of Bangladesh. Our dependency on Indian imports can cause an unnecessary economic uproar. The question is how much real is it? Can we try to get out of it? Of course, we can.

Undoubtedly, onion is one of the major spices in Bangladesh. It ranks first in production among the spice crops. In its early stage, the green stalk of onion is used in cooking and also as salad. Onion is used in many ways in preparing curries and other delicious foods, and therefore is considered an important item in the list of spices. However, it is not considered a threat to the food security in terms of consumption. One can definitely survive without consuming onions.  Studies show that it comprises only 1.1–1.6 per cent of monthly food expenditures of households. So any increase in price should not affect the consumers in a big way. They can reduce purchase and remain within their monthly budget.

Apparently, that was not happening. In a Muslim majority country where fish and meat are cooked quite often, onion is considered a very crucial spice. Bangladeshis are not vegetarians, but they love ‘bhorta’ preparations of vegetables particularly of potato (aloo bhorta), brinjal (begun bhorta), bean (shim bhorta) and the bhorta of small fish such as Taki etc. Bhorta preparations require use of oil, salt and onion. So there was a huge uproar over the higher onion price. As if people will starve without onions. The urban middle class and the lower-middle working class depend a lot on aloo bhorta and begun bhorta for lunch and breakfast. In the villages too, onion helps in quick food preparation such as bhorta. Many poor families have onion and green chili with watered rice (panta bhat) for breakfast. Therefore, understandably, media was quite busy with onions for quite some time.  


What happened with onion price?

ONIONS are usually sold at about Tk 25–30 per kg. But from mid September to early October, per kilogram of locally produced onions were sold for Tk 110 to Tk 115, while imported onions were sold for Tk100 in different kitchen markets in Dhaka. This certainly made a huge difference in the households’ kitchen shopping. This time the harvest of onion was good — its total production amounted to 1.8 million tons against a demand for 2.2–2.4 million tonnes. The country’s import volume of onion is 1.1 million tons from India alone and hence there should be no deficit. Against 0.4–0.6 million tons of deficit, the country should have had a surplus stock (The Financial Express, September 18, 2019).

One of the first newspaper headlines on onion price in mid-September was ‘Onion prices jump after India’s restriction on export’.  Just before this particular increase in price, onion price was Tk 40–50 in the retail markets. With India’s restriction on exports the price at the retail markets in Bangladesh went up around 71 per cent per kg within a day, the highest level in the last several years. In the market, both Indian and local onions are sold, and imported Indian onions are cheaper but local onions are a bit higher. Indian cities too have seen a rise in retail prices of onions from Rs 40 to Rs 50 per kilogram to Rs 20 to Rs 30 in September 2019.

According to newspaper reports, on September 13, the Indian Commerce Ministry slapped $850 (Tk 71,821) as the minimum export price for per tonne of onion. Bangladeshi traders were importing onion from the neighbouring country at $250 to $300 per tonnes the week before. In India, onion production was hampered due to flood in various Indian states including Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, two regions where onion grows in plenty. In Bangladesh, heavy rainfall also damaged a good amount of local onions during the harvesting season in April–May in Pabna, one of the main onion production zones (The Daily Star, September 15, 2019).

Bangladesh produces 1.7–1.9 million tonnes onion annually and imports 700,000–1.1 million tonnes to meet the domestic demand. It meets a portion of its annual demand for onion through imports for inadequate domestic production. Imports from India comprise 80 per cent of the total onion imports in the country. The deficit is only 18 per cent but we are importing more (1.1 million tonnes) against the deficit (0.4 million tonnes). That means there is a vested interest among the importers, who are depriving the farmers of the country by keeping the price of imported onions at a lower price. 

The importers bring onion mostly from India as the transport cost is low due to the close proximity. It only takes a few days to get it from India. Onions can also be imported from Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey, China and Pakistan. Due to transportation problems, India remains the only source of onion import. Most of the consignments from Myanmar rot on the way. It takes about a month to bring onions from Egypt to Bangladesh and about 25 days from China. Inevitably, India becomes the main source of imports for meeting the deficit. India knows that very well and can create an impact over onion prices through their export policy.


Prime minister’s joke about onion

BANGLADESH prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s remark on onion made a news headline in India. She was in Delhi to attend the India-Bangladesh Business Forum after the onion price hike in the country. It was a side event of the India Economic Summit of World Economic Forum held during 3–4 October, 2019. At this event, she made a joke and asked Delhi why she had not been given notice of the ban. She said, ‘It has become difficult for us to get onions. I don’t know why you stopped the supply. I’ve told my cook to make food without onions!’ (‘Told cook to not use onions’: Sheikh Hasina jokes on India’s Export Ban’, NDTV, October 4, 2019). She said jokingly in Hindi, ‘Pyaaz mein thoda dikkat ho gya hamare liye. Mujhe maloom nahi kyun aapne pyaaz bandh kar diya? Maine cook ko bol diya ab se khana mein pyaaz bandh kardo (It has become a bit difficult for us with onion [price hike], I don’t know why you have stooped [exporting] onion, I told my cook to stop using onion). ’

Perhaps a male prime minister would have asked the consumers to use fewer onions in their food. However, prime minister Sheikh Hasina knows very well that stopping the use of onions in her kitchen will have the least impact on the prices increase of onions at the national level. The long term solution should not be that India should have given a notice before they stopped the export, rather it should be that our onion producers be supported to produce more onions, despite the risks of weather conditions which were also the case for Indian producers. For Bangladeshi onion producers, imported onions from India, sold at a lower price than the local ones, is a disincentive.  Onion is produced in almost all the districts in Bangladesh, but in 15 districts it is produced on a large scale. During the harvesting season of 2016-17, they have produced over 2.153 million metric tons during 2016–17. The gap between demand and production is not too big and can be met by increased domestic production. Since 2012–13, the gap in production has been less than 1.0 million metric tons. There are local variety of onions called Taherpuri, Bhati, Jhitka and Koilashnagar. In addition, five high yielding varieties by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute have also been developed and cultivated by the farmers. Therefore, dependence on India should be reduced or even stopped. Bangladesh can even think of exporting Onions to India.                               

India can be told, ‘Hum ne kisano ko bol diya jeyada peyaz ugane ke liye. Hum aap ko bhi de sakte hein (We told our farmers to harvest more onion. We can even export you some).’


Farmers in Bangladesh can grow more onions

FARMERS in Bangladesh are against the import of onions, particularly from India, which lowers the domestic price by creating artificial surplus. Indian onions are cheaper than the local onions. Local onions are smaller, but has stronger pungent aroma than the bigger sized Indian or imported onions. Local onions make better tasting food and require less in amount. The top three onion growing regions of the country are Faridpur, Pabna and Rajshahi.

But farmers cannot grow more onions because they have to compete with lower priced Indian onions. This year, although the higher price made the urban consumers very angry, the farmers were inspired to produce more onion this year. In some villages of Natore, where we work, which are also onion growing areas, farmers are planning to cultivate more onion crops in their land during the Rabi season with the expectation of higher prices. Those who used to cultivate in only 1 katha (1.6 decimal), are now going to plant in 5 Katha or 1 bigha (8 decimal) expecting a higher income. That means small scale farmers are increasing allocation of land for onion crops five times more than the last year. The government should come up with incentives for the farmers and ensure better price so that both farmers and consumers gain. The increased production should be reflected in reduction in imports from India and other countries. The syndicate grows more strongly around imports. 

In the farming households, women are mostly involved in all the stages of onion production. They sort out the onions with sprouts before they plant in the field. They have to use mulching in the onion fields, which is also done by the women.  Although onion is a commercial spice crop, in the small scale farmers’ fields this is very much shared among other families. The leaves, stalks and flowers are also harvested and used as salad or cooked as vegetable. The Nayakrishi farmers grow onion as a mixed crop and share the leaves, stalk and flowers with other village farmers. They help each other with harvesting the crop. So onions are not only things we see in the big bags on the trucks or in the warehouses, but these crops are very much socially significant for the small scale farmers of the country.

We must try to reduce dependency on onion imports and must not face the threat of the unwarranted declaration by the Indian Commerce Ministry. Let it be an issue of the Agricultural Ministry of our country and let’s be self-sufficient in production with more tasty onions.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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