A woman collects rotten onions thrown out of a wholesale market in Chennai… (Nathan G., EPA )
Reporting from New Delhi — There is much that divides India and its traditional rival Pakistan: families long separated by partition, divided Kashmir, fear of a fourth war between the nuclear adversaries. But when it comes to the Great Onion Crisis of 2010, grateful India has found a friend across the border.
Onion prices across India have more than doubled to as much as 90 cents a pound this month, sending shock waves through vegetable market and kitchen alike in a country where many subsist on $1 a day. Some have taken to the streets in protest bedecked in onion garlands.
"Ever Had Biriyani Without Onions?" screamed a headline in the Mid Day tabloid.
So important is the humble onion that state governments in Delhi and Rajasthan fell in 1998 over rising onion prices and the "onion factor" helped overthrow the central government in 1980.
After initially ignoring the looming shortage, the government quickly banned exports, promised to release strategic "onion reserves," eliminated import duties and doubled the number of rail carriages devoted to the vital vegetable.
That's where Pakistan comes in. For most of the last week, it delivered on average about 50 trucks each carrying 10 tons of onions daily.
Little moved on Christmas, an Indian holiday, or Sunday, with shipments expected to resume Monday. Some Indian traders complain that the quality of bulbs from Pakistan's Sindh province was inferior to domestic production from Rajasthan or Gujarat states.
Some Middle East nations also are competing with India for Pakistan's onions even as the added demand drives up domestic onion prices in Pakistan. And India, the world's second-largest onion producer, is considering importing about 50,000 tons from the world's largest producer, China.
Indian officials have given various explanations for the shortage, including weather, hoarding and price gouging.
"The Great Onion Robbery," declared the Times of India, which alleged in a back-of-the-envelope calculation that Delhi wholesalers charged a 135% markup last week, fleecing consumers of nearly $1 million in a single day.
But there's opportunity in every crisis. Satmar Singh Gambhir, in eastern Jharkhand state, announced he would give away 2 pounds of onions for every pair of truck tires sold, a pound per pair of car tires. Sales boomed.
"The phone's been ringing off the hook," he said.
Comedian Jaspal Bhatti suggested that onions were a better Christmas gift than chocolate, and added that he and his wife were conferring about putting a few extra onions in their safety deposit box.
Behind the humor is some serious social pain. India's roaring economy, bottlenecks and structural deficiencies have pushed up food prices this year by 12%.
Experts reportedly warned government officials in November of a looming shortages but were ignored, planners have done little to spur agricultural reform, and the nation remains woefully short of decent roads, refrigerated trucks and warehouses. By some measures, 7 out of every 10 vegetables rot before reaching cities.
The lowly onion has a storied history in India. The first mention is about 2,500 years ago in the ancient medical text Charaka-Samhita, which celebrated the vegetable's curative powers.
Four centuries later, it was mentioned in religious texts as a despised food anathema to a life of meditation and austerity. It remained something of a medical and sensual sideshow for centuries, judging from the accounts of Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who visited India in the seventh century.
"Onions and garlic are little known and few people eat them," he wrote. "If anyone uses them for food, they are expelled beyond the walls of the town."
India's infatuation with the onion is credited to the Mughal rulers, who used them liberally in their meat and rice dishes.
Since this month's crisis hit, several chefs have offered substitute recipes for several of India's beloved curries that use cabbage, mustard, yogurt, tomatoes and other ingredients. One problem, however, tomato prices along with most other fruits and vegetables are going up too.
Maria Asunta, 59, a charity worker buying onions and tomatoes at the Indira Market in South Delhi, isn't taking advice from fancy chefs; she's going by instinct. She's buying much fewer onions, she said, and substituting whatever other vegetables are cheap that day. But she still can't live without them.
"My family loves onions," she said. "If I don't cook with them, no one eats my food."