Bangladesh organises onion airlift as prices hit record high

Ben Farmer
People scuffle as they purchase subsidised onions in Dhaka  - AFP

South Asia's onion crisis has widened, with Bangladesh airlifting supplies of the vegetable and the prime minister claiming prices are so high she has stopped eating them.

The spike in Bangladesh has put a staple ingredient for much South Asian food out of reach of the country's poor and follows a similar price hike in India.

Prices in Bangladesh rocketed after India banned exports to conserve its own stocks after they were hit first by drought and then by heavy monsoon rains.

As prices reached record levels, Bangladesh’s largest opposition party blamed the government for the hike and on Monday called for nationwide protests.

The humble bulb is so important to daily cooking in South Asia that shortages have a history of political fallout and a reputation for even toppling governments.

One kilo of the vegetable in Bangladesh usually costs 30 taka (27p) but soared to up to 260 taka (£2.37) after India's export ban was imposed.

Hours-long queues have formed to purchase the staple of South Asian cuisine Credit: AFP

India has seen its own spike in prices after a sharp fall in production and the issue has become a political headache for Delhi. India has already released its national buffer stocks and imposed measures to stop onion hoarding.

Hasan Jahid Tusher, deputy press secretary for Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina, told AFP onions were being imported by air freight, and that “prime minister said she has stopped using onion in dishes”.

None of the dishes at the PM’s residence in Dhaka on Saturday contained onions, he added.

Media in Bangladesh reported onion consignments arrived at a major port in Chittagong city on Sunday after the government imported stocks from Myanmar, Turkey, China and Egypt.

The increasing prices have pushed onions off restaurant and domestic menus, with Bangladeshis having to adjust their cooking and tastebuds.

“Onion has become an essential part of the taste buds of the people of this region, including Bangladesh,” a restaurateur called Shafiqul Islam told bdnews24. “A food can be eatable, but not much delicious without onion. Onion is a must for fish and meat recipes, biriyani and many other dishes.”

The state run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) has attracted long queues waiting for subsidised onions.

“Even if I have to stand another two hours, I will do that. I can save some 250 taka by buying one kilo of TCB onion. I am standing here because I have to save money,” said Ratan, an English teacher.

“I am 41 years old. I have never seen onion prices ever crossing beyond 120 taka.”

Drought badly hit India's first onion harvest in the spring, while unusually heavy monsoon rains hit the second harvest. The fluctuating price of onions is widely used as an everyday measure of inflation and a sudden inability for the poor to buy them can quickly focus concern over wider economic problems.

Indira Ghandi came to power in 1980 citing soaring onion prices as a metaphor for economic failures of the government. The issue dominated state elections in 1998 and again became a political crisis in 2010.

India last week said it was importing 100,000 tons of onions in a bid to curb rising prices.

Pakistan has meanwhile seen its own vegetable inflation, with a spike in tomato prices. A government finance adviser came in for widespread mockery after he insisted tomatoes were to be found for 17 rupees (8p) per kg. The price is more than 10 times that.