With consumer food prices rising 11.5% in July, likely the third highest since the current retail inflation data series began in 2014, the government last Saturday made yet another gambit to arrest prices. A 40% export levy on onion exports was imposed with immediate effect till at least December 31. This move follows curbs on non-basmati rice shipments outside India in July, and stock limits on pulses and wheat imposed in June. Onion exports, which grew 65% last year, accounted for 8% of total domestic production. On Sunday, the government also announced a hike in buffer stocks of the curry essential by two lakh metric tonnes. Onion traders and farmers, in the midst of the first upturn in prices after almost two years, were not impressed. Markets were shut in protest in Nashik, Asia’s largest onion trading hub, as farmers feared a glut and a price crash.
Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh account for almost 60% of India’s onion supplies, and the deficient rainfall this month in parts of these States after excess rains in July had put a question mark on the moisture-sensitive tuber’s prospects this kharif season. These worries likely triggered the recent uptick in onion prices from around ₹23 a kilo two months ago to over ₹31 by this Monday. Relative to tomatoes, the other quintessential ingredient for Indian curries, this price surge was not as stark yet, although some analysts projected prices per kilo to touch ₹60-₹70 by September. To quell onion farmers’ displeasure at the export levy imposed without a floor price, Food and Consumer Affairs Minister Piyush Goyal on Tuesday promised that onions will be purchased at a “historical high” price of ₹2,410 per quintal, and buffer stock procurements will be ramped up further if needed. A Bank of Baroda report cautioned that steps such as export curbs also have a tendency to reinforce the scarcity factor worrying markets and push up prices further. How this attempt to balance the interests of consumers and farmers plays out remains to be seen. A profligate use of such blunt policy interventions ends up distorting sowing preferences in the coming year, especially in the very crops that spurred more inflation this year. Building durable food supply chains, especially for vegetables that are traditionally susceptible to price volatility, needs greater attention so that monetary policy can focus on growth concerns. For instance, if tomato imports from Nepal helped cool their prices from triple digit levels a month ago, it makes eminent sense to engage with the neighbour for a longer-term supply plan for vegetables with some predictable purchase assurances built in.