Onion has been the political hot potato for ruling coalitions in Assam. Price of onions is spiralling and has touched Rs 80 a kilogram in the retail market in the state. However, the state government seems to be not interested in peeling away the layers off its price that would reveal the core cause behind the rise. Soaring prices of this most used basic ingredient in the kitchens has brought tears to consumers who are grappling with downturn in the economy caused by the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. The conversation around it has spread beyond the retail markets and dining tables to the social media platforms as well as traditional media. The silence of the State government is only going to make things worse for the ruling coalition ahead of the 2021 Assembly polls. The narrative around onion price hike is more dominating and will quickly reach every household in no time and will overshadow the emerging narrative pushed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in the State of providing rice at Rupee one a kilogram and various other sops doled out to beneficiaries in the state to provide them relief. The Central government has announced release of one lakh metric tonnes of buffer stock of onion through NAFED to provide some relief to the consumers. On its part, the Assam government has not shown any urgency to address the issue and therefore, it remains to be seen if the release of the buffer stock will bring down the price in the state. The Central government's intervention is a temporary measure and cannot guarantee that price of onion is not going to rise again.
The state must find its own solution to keep the price in check. Failure to increase onion production despite the potential has made Assam to remain dependent on supplies from onion-growing states. The Agri Vision 2025 prepared by the Agriculture Department states that the area under onion cultivation in the state is 8083 hectares and total production is estimated at 18,341 metric tonnes. It is predominantly grown in Barpeta, Dhubri and Nagaon districts and average yield per hectare is 2.26 MT which is much less than all India average of around 14.2 MT per hectare. The major Onion producing states are Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and these ten states account for 90 per cent of country's production which was estimated at 267.38 lakh tonnes according to second advance estimates for 2019-20. Assam's share is only 0.38 per cent. Procuring of onion from other states result in huge money outflow which could have been utilised for generating employment and enhancing income of farm families by focusing on increasing the area under onion cultivation and also the productivity.
The Horti Vision 2020 states that Assam has the potential of increasing the area under onion cultivation to 12.70 hectares. It requires identification of potential belts, organising the farmers for large scale cultivation, imparting them training, awareness, and exposure, the vision document adds. That is what the departments concerned are expected to do. Articulating policies, identifying strategies is not going to do the wonder. Unless pragmatic action in the form schemes and programmes is initiated, the pages of such vision documents have no utility other than being academic exercise with no outcomes. Much depends on the monitoring and evaluation of the schemes and programmes by the policy makers. State Departments should launch dashboards of projects and schemes on the line of central ministries so that real time monitoring can be done by all stakeholders including the citizens. The state Directorate of Horticulture launched Chief Minister's Onion Mission in 2013 during the previous Congress regime to bring additional 2000 hectares under onion cultivation.
The target set under the mission was to grow 1,00,000 MT in 21 districts. The statistics of onion cultivation and production highlighted in the Agri Vision 2025 reveals that the scheme was a total failure which has left the consumers at the mercy of the onion traders. However, the vision document does not mention anything if the Agriculture and Horticulture department had undertaken any comprehensive review of the failure of the scheme to draw lessons for future. The present BJP-led coalition government has also failed to augment the onion production to provide relief to the consumers and reduce dependence on other states. While in opposition, the spiralling price of onions becomes an issue for parties, but they forget it soon after ascending the throne. It is the consumers who are caught in the game of parties changing sides over onion price after capturing power at Dispur. Indifferent attitude of the government for finding a permanent solution will only trigger speculations of nexus between unscrupulous onion traders, politicians and executives and cause more anxiety and anger among the consumers.