December 22, 2010

onion price hike: what's so great about it?

Onion prices have zoomed to Rs 80 a kilo in many retail markets in some cities. So what? Milk prices have again been raised, the second time within a year. Sugar and dal prices have come down from their peaks but the prices raised by halwais, tea-stalls, restaurants etc have not been reduced. India consumes  120 million tonnes of milk, 30 million tonnes of sugar and jaggery, and 15 million tonnes of pulses a year but only 10 million tonne onions.

So, why does the onion price rise make such big news?

You will say, "Onion price hikes in the past have led to government falls." Forget that, no government is going to fall due to this onion price hike. It won't impact even the coming state polls.

"OK," you might say, "Onion is put in all Indian vegetables and curries. It is a must in most non-veg preparations..." I beg to differ here too. That is not the reason onion is big news.

In my humble opinion, the answer lies with TV channels. Onion is bought whenever people go to the market to buy veggies and it alarms them if they find prices suddenly up. In the eyes of TV channels, this makes superb news-material. A channel last evening paraded a housewife who dutifully said, she won't be able to fire her heath. Another channel predicted that onion would rise to Rs 150 a kilo in a couple of days. In yet another channel, an illiterate anchor joined a similarly qualified reporter standing in a veg market to show with authority how the government failed to guess and then take corrective actions.

A colleague of mine in the electronic media was candid in admitting that onion was a big issue because there was not much juice left in Radia-Raja-Tata affairs to sustain viewer interest. "Think," he said, "if there were a bomb blast somewhere or a major air accident today, would we be chasing onions?" I got my answer.

On a more serious note, the government failed miserably [like almost always] in taking timely action. Farmers' associations of Maharashtra and trade circles have been predicting this type of situation [though perhaps nobody knew that would be so sudden] for three weeks now. On top of it, where was the need for Pawar to make a statement yesterday that prices would come down, if they really do so, not before three weeks or so?

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