Onions, and lessons learnt

Anisul Hoque | Update:

Prothom Alo illustrationAre onions still the talk of the town? In the past, onions brought tears to women’s eyes as they sliced them in the kitchens, but now onion’s pungent prices are making men cry too.

The government has taken initiatives, some administrative and some enforced, but to no avail. After all, there’s never any political answer to economic woes. Neither are there administrative enforced answers to such problems.

I often quote from Akbar Ali Khan’s book on economics of altruism. He wrote: ‘When martial law was enforced in Pakistan in 1958, the military rulers were keen to keep the urban population happy. At the time, there was a lack of pure milk in the towns of East Pakistan. The milk would be diluted with water. This was because the common people could hardly afford pure milk. Due to the lack of people’s purchasing power, milk production was limited. And if milk supply did not increase, neither the price nor the adulteration would decrease and so the economic solution was to increase milk production. Such solutions would need time and money. So the military rulers turned towards a political solution instead.

‘Prior to martial law, the magistrate would enforce a negligible fine if milk was adulterated. The military rulers thought that if the fine was increased, the adulteration would be decrease. So in 1959 the minimum fine was fixed at Tk 150, which would be equal in value to about Tk 1000 today. I had the experience of applying this law in the sixties. I fined around 100 or so persons Tk 150 each in a district town and hoped that now milk adulteration would lessen. But I learnt that the adulteration increased after the fine was imposed. This was because after the court had imposed such high fines, the sanitary inspectors became quite aggressive in the market, threatening the milk traders with cases unless they paid them bribes. So, more water was mixed with the milk so that they could earn enough money to pay the inspectors. As a magistrate I saw for myself how a solution could simply serve to exacerbate a problem.’ [Translated]

Onion production in the country was less than the demand. The shortfall was met by importing onions from India. Now India itself faces an onion crisis. The moment this news broke out, onion prices shot up in Bangladesh.

There was no immediate solution to this problem. If the government had statistics in advance about how much onions needed to be imported and that India would halting onion export, then it could have sought alternative measures in advance. But that did not happen as the problem aggravated. Initiative was taken to import onions from Myanmar, China, Turkey and Pakistan, and much of the initiatives were taken by the government.

The fact remains, however, that the government’s administrative measures have not been successful. The market could have calmed a bit with the government’s assurances that the big businesses were importing onions. It hasn’t really calmed that much and the smaller traders are unsure whether or not to important onions. They don’t want to fall into a trap again.

The prices of onion have risen. These onions had to be flown in by air. The customs intelligence has had to check whether those with licences to import onions free of duty are doing so or whether they are using this opportunity for money laundering purposes. If they imported the onions, where are the onions now?

Prothom Alo has reported that no hoarded onions have been found. But it has a positive report too, that around 2000 tonnes of onions imported by Meghna Group and BSM have arrived at the port. Vessels are arriving every day and two more companies have brought in two large consignments. Meanwhile, November has drawn to a close and December has arrived at the doorstep. Local onions will enter the market and prices will drop.

Let me recall the time when India announced it would stop exporting cows to Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh proved their creativity, their mettle and their innovative spirit and I said that within a year we would have our own cattle farms and be self-sufficient in livestock. And that became true.

It will be the same with onions. By next year we will be self-sufficient in onions. That is the normal economic rule, boosted by the amazing productive talent of Bangladesh’s people.

Onion is not like rice, dal or salt. Food can be cooked without onions and can be cooked well too. Orthodox Hindu families wouldn’t eat onions and many still do not. And Muslims too are discouraged to eat onions and garlic before entering the mosque. But when onion prices shoot up, such trivia simply evokes the ire of the consumers further. When Justice Sattar was president, he told a seminar that we must change our food habits. We have to reduce our dependence of rice and diversify our food, look to potatoes as a possible alternative. A daily newspaper the next day carried the headline: ‘Eat potatoes instead of rice: President Sattar.’

Fortunately our ministers haven’t been too voluble of late. The less the leaders and ministers speak, the less chance there is of them making blunders, though recently the foreign minister did make an insensitive remark about Bangladeshi women workers returning as dead bodies from Saudi Arabia.

Anyway, the bottom line is that there is no political solution, no administrative solution and no enforced solution to economic problems. Even political problems cannot be solved by force. Political problems do not have administrative or military solutions.

There is no one cure-all solution to our problems. Political problems are to be resolved politically, economic problems with economics and diplomatic problems with diplomacy.

The prices of onions will fall and Bangladesh will have record onion production next year.

Lastly, the least said the better. Let me heed my own advice and end here.

* Anisul Hoque is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a writer. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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