Soaring onion prices create panic in Bangladesh

Onion farming in Gopalganj, Bangladesh. Image via Flickr by UN Women Asia and Pacific. CC BY-NC-ND.

Onions are an important ingredient used in most South Asian dishes and its price is a very sensitive issue. In countries like India and Bangladesh, shortages can trigger a nationwide outcry leading to political pressure. As the onion crisis soared in Bangladesh in November with delays in traditional import and prices increasing six-fold, the government has announced that it is air lifting onions to meet the demand.

How did we get here?

Bangladesh produced more than 2.33 million metric tons of onions from 2018-2019 (July-June); however, the market demand is 3.6 million metric tons. The country imports onions to cover this shortage from neighboring India which produces almost one-fourth of the world's onions.

This September, India banned the export of onions because of reduced domestic production due to excessive rainfall and soaring local demands. Local experts termed this a knee-jerk response which does not resolve the problem but rather hurts the farmers.

However, this has a huge impact on Bangladesh as it also had poor domestic production this year. As India stopped export, Bangladesh looked elsewhere for their onion imports. Initially, the traders did not go for imports in large margins, thinking that India would lift the ban soon. Instead, some traders stockpiled onions creating an artificial crisis.

An onion seller at Sadarghat, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image via Flickr by Gerry Popplestone. CC BY-NC-ND

In September, the price of onion was Bangladeshi Tk. 45-50 (USD 50-60 cents) per kilogram. It rose to Tk. 110-120 (USD 1.30 – 1.40) in October and in November it hit the roof at Bangladeshi Tk. 250 (USD 3).

During a visit to India in the first week of October, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister jokingly complained about the onion ban to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that she’s had to cut onions from her menu. Despite repeated requests from Bangladesh, India did not withdraw the ban and there is an indication that the ban may last a few more months.

Onion is a perishable item, consignments from far away countries often rot on the way. So India remains the most viable option for import. Now Bangladesh is forced to buy onions from other nations such as China and Egypt, and they are importing via air cargo from Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan to meet the immediate crisis.

Artificial Crisis

Onion used to comprise only a small portion of the monthly food expenditures of Bangladeshi households. However, the price increase has hurt the lower middle class and poor households. The government has launched subsidized price onion outlets to stabilize the market and a lot of people flocked to the selling points.

Many blamed the traders for creating an artificial crisis. Different government agencies fined and jailed more than 2,000 traders in the past two months for stockpiling onions or selling at a higher price than the market price.

Rotten onions discovered in Khatunganj silo. Stockpiled onions for selling after a price increase is being spoiled. If you are too greedy, you risk losing everything.

People on social media asked others to boycott onions to resist the hoarders.

Will you die if you don't eat onions? If that's not true then come let's boycott onions and teach a lesson to these trader syndicates.

You alone is enough to break these trader syndicate. We will not buy onion from 19/11/2019 to 29/11/2019. Tell your family and neighbours not to buy any onion too. 10 days without onion. You can do it.

To address the crisis, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently told media that her meals are being cooked without onion and the result is “tasty and delicious”. People are sharing recipes of common culinary items online that can be prepared without onion.

Ireen Sultana writes in Facebook:

পেঁয়াজ বস্ত্রের মত আবশ্যক না। মৌলিক অধিকার না। [..] বাঙালির বহু ব্যঞ্জন এমনিতেই পেঁয়াজ ছাড়া হয়। আর যেসবে লাগে তা পরিমাণে কম দিয়েও রাঁধা যায়। অথবা পেঁয়াজ না দিয়েও উপাদেয় করা যায়।

আপনার যদি আজকাল ৫ কেজির জায়গায় আড়াই কেজিতে চলে যায় তো বুঝবেন এটাই আসল পরিমাণ। এতদিন আপনি পেঁয়াজ বিলাসি ছিলেন।

Onion is not an absolute necessity like clothes. Not basic rights. [..] Many Bengali food items are prepared without onion or you can use at a lesser quantity. Even you can make food tasty without onion.

If your monthly consumption of onion has come down to half from 5 kilograms because of the crisis, then you know that this is the correct demand. You were overusing onion till now.

Meanwhile, some netizens reacted to the onion crisis using innovative and funny memes such as this:

Instead of taking measures against the price increase we are being told to stop eating onion. Thanks God the price of clothes did not increase. Widely used meme from Facebook page

“Instead of taking measures against the price increase we are being told to stop eating onions. Thank God the price of clothes did not increase”. Widely used meme from Facebook page

Despite the jokes being shared online, the seriousness of the issue should not be forgotten as political parties are using the crisis as a rallying point. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) largest opposition party, blamed the government for the hike and called for a countrywide rally in protest. There was also a heated debate in the parliament about it.

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