In his Ode to the Onion, the Chilean Nobel laureate poet Pablo Neruda praises onions as "the miracle" that happens under the earth. He compares the birth of an onion—the way it grows, covered in dew while being under the ground—with the birth of Aphrodite. In his poetic rendition, onions "make us cry without hurting us." The poet's ability to see the extraordinary features beyond the ordinary vegetable is remarkable. As a diplomat who was posted in Rangoon in British India as well as in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and as someone who had traveled extensively throughout South Asia, Neruda knew a thing or two about the "luminous flask" served "upon the table of the poor". He even goes to the extent of claiming that this vegetable with the fragrance of the earth is "destined to shine." However, I do not think even the diplomat-cum-poet expected onions to occupy the central stage of realpolitik.
On Monday, the Indian Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) issued an urgent notice prohibiting the export of all varieties of onion. According to the Indian Express, the export ban was triggered by a spike in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the crossing of the "psychological barrier" of Rs 30 per kilo of onion in the wholesale market. The supply chain of Indian onions, we are told, is disrupted by heavy rain that has washed away the harvest in the southern states, with the market relying on the onions stored in Maharashtra. India's nose squinting response is understandable, because they are acting on a collective memory. They know, "when the cost of onions goes up, governments can come down".
It is a tricky call for the Modi government because they are planning to amend a bill involving the storage of essentials. The farmers are apprehensive that such an amendment will put them at the mercy of corporate bosses. The farmers of course feel that they never get fair prices because of the opportunist middle men. The absence of exports will further force the sellers to sell their products at rock-bottom prices. Protesting the three farm bills tabled by the Centre in Parliament, Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal on Thursday announced in the Lok Sabha that their party leader and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal would quit the Modi government. With so much happening, India probably forgot the gentleman's agreement it had with its neighbour, who too do not like their cuisines without onions.
The ban notice therefore sent a shock-wave through Dhaka; an official note verbale has already been served to the Indian envoy pointing out that Bangladesh was upset over the breach of "unwritten understanding" and asking India to resume onion exports. During a VVIP visit to India in January, India and Bangladesh reached an agreement that New Delhi would keep Dhaka informed of its future onion export plans. The sudden decision to ban export without any prior warning has put the importing country Bangladesh in an awkward position; the commerce minister responded with an assurance that the country has enough onions to meet local demands for the next three months, while the foreign minister has assuaged the cry over the pungent bulb by mentioning that his counterparts are "extremely repentant". It would have been nice to hear the repentance in a foreign voice, rather than our own.
"Onionomics", the food economy, especially when it involves an essential part of the everyday diet of millions of people in the region, is ultimately linked with our regional politics. The banning of onions became a huge issue last October when the prices of the kitchen product skyrocketed in India following a heavy monsoon. The decision exposed the pitfalls of heavy reliance of the farm economy on the vagaries of weather. The meteorological weather soon turned political as India was forced to import onions from Turkey, despite President Erdogan's vocal stance against the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, stripping the states of their constitutional status.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made light of the situation by telling our Indian neighbours, "I wish you had informed us before suddenly putting a halt in export of onions. I had to tell my cook I have no other option but to have my food without onions. I would request India to please inform us beforehand while taking such an action. After all, we are neighbours." We had to also reach out to our belligerent neighbour Myanmar seeking onions, sensing that it would take time to get onions from Turkey and Egypt.
I think as a nation, we need to peel the many layers of onion politics and address the core issue. Onion is a very volatile cash crop, and we have a poor storage system. It is very difficult to predict its prices. Because of its 85 percent water content, it is difficult to store onions as they start losing weight fast and can soon perish. Prices of onion vary depending on unseasonal rain and manipulation of supply lines. While the natural causes make the consumers and farmers suffer, they give excuses the traders and retailers to gain. The shortage of supplies often leads to 400 to 500 percent increase in price of onions by the time the crop reaches retailers, and the middle men happily lap up the profit margins.
Since few Bangladeshi kitchens can do without the pungent bulb, there should be new ways of making this perishable item available to consumers. Given the shortage of cold storage, one way to check the volatility of onion prices is to have food processing plants where these bulbs could be dehydrated and bottled.
When we look at the ministry level response to the price of onions, we do realise that they are alert about the situation. However, the government should be equally alert when the prices fall. Buying onions from local farmers at a fair price instead of being at the mercy of exporters should be one of our priorities.
At the same time, we should take our cue from the nationalistic steps of our neighbours. Becoming self-sufficient in onion production is the only way we can stop crying over the vegetable that has the reputation of causing tears. The title of my piece thus twists Bob Marley's song, and says, "no onions, no cry!"
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.