There were no tears shed over onions at the Centenary Farmers’ Market last evening, but there certainly were some sour stories as people rushed for onions and vendors took advantage of the demand.
The demand for the bulb was too good to resist as vendors violated price fixed by authorities. The complaint was not on the price, which was more than double the fixed price, but not getting onions, even if import was allowed and rationing on quantity sold. By late evening, officials of the Office of Consumer Protection had to be called in to control the price and others to control the crowd.
If we thought onions are not as important as chillies to Bhutanese, we were wrong. Onions, as much as it is needed in our ezay, is an essential part of the Bhutanese diet. There is a huge demand and its shortage creates panic. It is not the leafy or the spring onions that elderly Bhutanese are used to, but the bulb imported in hundred of tonnes from India and grown in insignificant quantities in the country.
Even without lockdown or restrictions on import, supply of onions fluctuates at this time of the year. Supply depends on what happens in neighbouring India. Disruption in supply happens because of excessive rain or draught, diseases and trade malpractices like hoarding. This is quite rampant.
It is said that shortage or price of onions can decide an election in India, from where we import all our onions. While onions may not make Bhutanese demand for a government to step down, the demand and price is an opportunity. If we cannot live a week without onions, it opens an opportunity for Bhutanese mulling to return to farming after the pandemic disrupted livelihood.
We could start with a robust yearly agricultural outlook. What is the size of our demand? Which vegetable or spice? What season and so on. Farmers and youth groups realised this potential and made an attempt. It has not picked up. Cultivating onions could be another field where we not only meet local demand, but also help the demand of just one state in India. Rainy spells damage vast fields of onions in India. It is where we can fill the gap, even if for a small Indian city like Siliguri with a population more than Bhutan. The market is there and the demand is assured.
Bhutanese can rely on onions as a cash crop. We have the potential. There is land and climatic conditions favour us when there is shortage in India. Above all, the pandemic has taught us the importance of growing our own food. With the right investment and technology, it would be a good opportunity. The government has identified 15,942 acres of fallow land that is fit for farming. We have more data collected because of the Covid-19 pandemic to help make decisions and we know India, our source of onions, bans export when there is shortage in supply.
All these should make us have the last laugh and not cry over onions when there is shortage.