Himachal's Kharif onion initiative: Can it help check annual price rise?

The project focusses on Dalit and tribal women farmers in Chamba growing onion with the help of Solan University

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 19 November 2019
Photo: Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry

A unique project is underway in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district, aiming to grow onions during the Kharif season and provide them at affordable prices to local consumers, at the same time, making farmers self-reliant.

The project is inspired, in part, due to the annual spiralling of prices of onion around Diwali, followed by a crash at the end of the Rabi season, seriously impacting onion farmers in various parts of India.

“Locals in the Bainsaka and Sukraini areas of Chamba had been constantly urging us to provide them with sets of Kharif onion (immature onion), which they could plant on their small land holdings and earn some money,” Deepa Sharma, a vegetable scientist involved in implementation of the project, said.

“It was then that we prepared a project on behalf of the Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry (UHF) at Solan. The university approached the Department of Science and Technology and the project started rolling in 2017,” she added.

“One of the most important aspects of the project has been that it is women-specific and is being carried out by those belonging to the category of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who, otherwise, work as daily wage labourers and have very small holdings,” Sharma said.

Till now, 362 people have benefitted from the project. Under the project, 245 demonstrations have been organised on farm fields and 14 training programmes have been organised in the last two years.

Deepa said people had shown a keen interest in the initiative, given the fact that they were able to harvest green onions in October while the dry bulb could be made available to consumers by the last week of November and first week of December.

“They are able to sell the produce at around Rs 50-60 per kilogram at a time when consumers at other places are compelled to shell anything between Rs 80-100 in other parts of the country,” she added.

With no middlemen involved and the farmer selling the produce directly to the customers, the returns are good for the producer while it does not pinch the pocket of the local consumer to the extent that it does at other places.

Ravinder Sharma, an expert on agriculture economics at UHF, underlined that onion farmers in other parts of India were suffering a double whammy at regular intervals as they were being very ‘price responsive’.

“Seeing the prices escalate, there is a tendency to dedicate larger areas for onion’s cultivation the next year. They are the ones who suffer when there is a glut and loose out when the prices are encouraging. In the process, it is the middleman or hoarders who laugh away to the banks,” he said, adding that the much talked-about Farmer Produce Organisations were yet to take shape and deliver.

Sharma further explained that the export theory had also not been yielding desired results since the domestic produce had to be exported often, owing to previous commitments, only to later go in for imports to tackle the domestic demand among spiralling prices.

“Not only in case of onion but for other commodities as well, there is a need to go in for land legislation as it will specify the area under cultivation of a particular crop, prevent over production and help prepare a road map,” he said.

Sharma added that the farmer was very reluctant to diversify as can be noted in case of the water-guzzling paddy cultivation in the neighbouring state of Punjab.

“Onion is a product consumed by the poorest of the poor on a daily basis. It is a pity that artificial scarcity is allowed to be created since it is easy to store and also hoard. Ideally, the storage facility of onions should be either with the farmers or with the government agencies,” Kisan Sabha leader Kuldeep Tanwar said.

He pointed that the annual spiraling of prices of onion gets checked the moment the government announces its decision to import the crop.

Tanwar said the Chamba experiment was a positive initiative through which, a state like Himachal Pradesh, with its climatic advantage, could move in the right direction.

“It again highlights that research and production should have a market perspective. The research should be aimed at having multiple harvests of crops in both, the Rabi and Kharif seasons,” he said.

The UHF is now in the process of popularising the commercial cultivation of Kharif onion.

“This is a very photo-sensitive crop and can be grown in districts that provide the ideal conditions. But it also has the advantage of being grown on very small patches of land including kitchen gardens. We are definitely trying to replicate its production in other districts and this can also be done in other Himalayan states as well,” Deepa Sharma said. 

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