Despatch from Dhaka | International

Costly onion leaves many Bangladeshis teary-eyed

People scuffle while purchasing subsidised onions in Dhaka on November 17.   | Photo Credit: AFP

It has been two topsy-turvy months for the people of Bangladesh. After India banned the export of onion in September, it created a ripple effect that quickly spread. Prices of the kitchen staple shot through the roof — at one point in November, it spiked five-fold — giving nightmares to housewives. People cut down on consumption, while the government cracked down on racketeers and made desperate efforts to import onion by air.

A Dhaka housewife, Sufia Chowdhury, 46, even ended up fighting with her husband. With the prices on a steady climb, Ms. Chowdhury found her husband less and less willing to spend money on onion. But it was difficult for her to cook without this humble bulb. “I’ve never seen something like this and onion has never been such a pricey item before,” Ms. Chowdhury said.

On September 29, India banned all onion exports after local prices jumped to ₹4,500 per quintal, the highest in nearly six years, due to the delay in the arrival of the summer-sown crop triggered by a prolonged monsoon.

Since the ban, many countries have turned to Myanmar, Egypt, Turkey and China to increase supplies in a bid to bring prices down. But the hefty volumes lost will be hard to replace as India exports more than two million tonnes of onion a year.

As the government grappled with rocketing prices, it turned to neighbouring countries.

One costly but probably unavoidable option was the airlifting of onions from Turkey and Pakistan as public discontent was simmering. The first consignment arrived in Dhaka on the evening of November 20 from Karachi.

When the cargo plane with 82 tonnes of onions touched down at Dhaka airport, it brought cheers to hard-pressed consumers.

Airborne imports may bring quick relief to the crisis, but the market will remain turbulent in the days to come, analysts said.

Ban to stay

India may retain the ban on exports until February as domestic prices have risen after the harvest of summer-sown crops, which were expected to augment supplies, was delayed and damaged by untimely rain, Reuters reported citing a government official.

The ban on overseas sales by India, the world’s biggest exporter of onion, will keep prices high in Asia and it will require countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka to find other sources to fulfil their demand.

As prices zoomed up to 250 taka (₹211) a kg about two weeks ago, the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB), a government agency that maintains a buffer stock of essential commodities to stabilise local markets, dispatched trucks across the country to sell onion at 45 taka. People from low-income backgrounds waited for hours in queues, long before the trucks arrived.

Hundreds of thousands of people scrambled for low-cost purchases. Images of men and women scuffling through the crowds just to get close to the onion vehicles emerged in Dhaka.

Bangladesh then homed in on traders, blaming them for creating an artificial crisis. The government punished 2,500 rogue traders for price rigging, Commerce Secretary Jafar Uddin said at a media briefing in Dhaka on November 18.

The official read out a written statement to the media, highlighting a list of government steps in three minutes, and left the press conference without taking questions. “The onion market will return to normal very soon,” he said in the statement with a degree of assurance.

Despite the prices going beyond her reach, Ms. Chowdhury refused to join the desperate group for TCB-supplied onion and stayed home pondering over how to get through the crisis.

But there was only one option open to her: consume less onions. Over the past month, her family of three consumed 10 kg of onion, half of the usual quantity.

While Ms. Chowdhury, who uses onion as the main cooking ingredient, had to compromise on the taste, many others shunned it altogether.

Ms. Chowdhury’s neighbour, Kazi Ferdosi, 44, said: “Onion is not an essential food item for everyday consumption. Worrying over something not so important isn’t worth it.”

Ms. Ferdosi has decided to abandon onion for now, but it is deemed essential to many — a fact of life in Bangladesh that forces the government to import the item by air. More cargo planes will fly in with onion to give Bangladeshis some respite from the squeeze.

(Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka.)

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 7:46:28 PM |

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