Enough to make you cry: Big spike in onion prices sparks fury, armed robbery in India

Onion prices have surged in India. Shariq Allaqaband / Cover Asia Press

NEW DELHI -- Armed robbers have resorted to targeting trucks hauling tons of onions after monsoon rains sent prices for the popular food skyrocketing in India.

The cost of a pound of onions has risen from around 9 rupees (13 cents) to an average of 45 rupees (65 cents) in the last month alone. The shortage is front-page news in the country, where high onion prices have been credited with swinging elections in the past.

New Delhi-based onion dealer Rataas Paul, 27, has been forced to raise his prices due to the shortage. "We have to keep guard of our onions at night now to ensure nothing happens to them," he said. Shariq Allaqaband / Cover Asia Press

“It is not usual to target food or vegetables,” said Ram Kishore, a police officer from the northern district of Shahpura where the truck carrying 40 tons of onions was seized last Wednesday. “Thieves do hijack loaded trucks, but it is usually for something more valuable.”

India has a 19 percent share of global onion production, second only to China. Stocks are low after unrelenting monsoon rains damaged this year’s crop and a drought affected production last year.

Nitin Khurafati, who is one of the Indian capital's most popular radio DJs, said the spike in prices was all his listeners wanted to discuss.

“Even if I try to talk about something else, they start talking about onions,” the Fever FM host said. “It’s a staple of Indian food so everyone is really angry right now.”

He added that the station had been overwhelmed with calls after he started a competition to win 11 pounds of onions.

“It started as a spoof,” he said. “But once it took off the lines didn’t stop buzzing. We had around 2,000 calls in five minutes from people of every socio-economic class. From the poorest to people driving posh cars, they all phoned in.”

At a Delhi vegetable market, stallholder Rataas Paul, 27, warily kept a close eye on his bags of onions.

Pradeep Kohli, 54, says he can't live without onions. "It's a worrying time," the businessman added. Shariq Allaqaband / Cover Asia Press

“It's crazy times," he said. "We have to keep guard of our onions at night now to ensure nothing happens to them.”

Paul added that two months ago he was paying about 4 rupees (5 cents) per pound at the wholesale market and now they cost 20 rupees (29 cents). He has boosted his prices in order to make enough profit.

His customers were equally unhappy.

"We all need onions,” businessman Pradeep Kohli said. “My dining table is incomplete without onions, they're used in all Indian dishes and salads. What do we do if we can't have onions? It's a worrying time.”

Retired government employee Santosh Nanda added that the rising cost was hitting the elderly particularly hard.

“Our dinners are more expensive now than ever,” the 65-year-old Nanda said. “Old people like me we keep an amount of money aside each month for vegetables but this month we have exceeded that budget three times over. We cannot leave onions out of our dishes but all we can do is consume less.”

Amid protests from angry lawmakers, the national government has been forced to announce steps to curb price rises including measures aimed at limiting exports.

Santosh Nanda, 65, and wife Devki Nanda, 75, say the skyrocketing cost of onions is hitting the elderly hard. Shariq Allaqaband / Cover Asia Press

In the past, politicians have paid the price when onions became expensive. In 1998, the then-ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered heavy losses in Delhi state elections, a result widely blamed on high onion prices.

And with many states holding provincial elections this month and a national election next year, opposition parties have been quick to get on the offensive.

BJP member Vijay Jolly gave away bags of onions instead of the traditional candy during the Hindu festival of Rakhi.

“When the onion went above 80 rupees [per kilogram --or 36 rupees per pound] that was a deal breaker,” BJP spokeswoman Meena Kashi Lekhi said. “But this is just a wider symbol for the government’s failure to manage the economy properly.”

Stung by the criticism, the government is also considering importing onions from neighboring Pakistan -- India's arch-enemy.

But Lekhi said that was too little too late.

“They had their chance and they blew it,” she said. “It is the poor that are suffering and they may well vote with their bellies.” 

Jalees Andrabi of Cover Asia Press contributed to this story from New Delhi. Henry Austin reported from London.