Upset over onion export ban, this Maharashtra taluka has shut doors to Lok Sabha campaigning

Farmers in onion belt vow to express resentment during elections, point out opposition parties also failed to offer respite
Several signboards have been installed in Deola, which read: “Will anyone listen to the plight of onion growers? We will decide if we should vote for people representatives who did not listen to our concerns on export ban and other issues in the past five years. If you do not need farmers, then we also don’t need you. All villagers, Malwadi, Deola taluka”.
Several signboards have been installed in Deola, which read: “Will anyone listen to the plight of onion growers? We will decide if we should vote for people representatives who did not listen to our concerns on export ban and other issues in the past five years. If you do not need farmers, then we also don’t need you. All villagers, Malwadi, Deola taluka”.

A part of Maharashtra’s famed onion belt is gripped by tensions as the extension of the allium’s export ban is rattling the region’s political landscape during the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In the aftermath of the ban, poll candidates have been shut out of campaigning in the region.

Deola taluka, nestled in Nashik district, is witnessing these dramatic turn of events. A number of signboards have been installed across the taluka, announcing that the entry of candidates campaigning for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls has been barred. 

This unprecedented move comes in response to the recent export ban imposed on onions, a lifeline for the region’s economy, which has left farmers and locals reeling with uncertainty. Onions have long been a key commodity in Indian politics, with price fluctuations frequently influencing voter sentiment.

The decision was made to express the anger and frustration of onion farmers against the backdrop of political candidates who might visit their constituencies to campaign for the general elections, whose first phase began on April 19, 2024. These signboards have one message for politicians: Will you listen to the concerns of onion growers?

On March 22, 2024, the Government of India extended the ban on onion exports indefinitely, mere days before it was due to expire on March 31. This export ban, first imposed on December 8, 2023, was a response to a shortage in domestic supply, with the goal of securing a steady and affordable onion supply for consumers within the country. 

Originally slated to conclude by March 31, both onion farmers and traders had anticipated the ban’s cessation after this date. The move to extend the ban came as a surprise, as market conditions were conducive to lifting the ban.

The Centre decided to extend the export ban in light of the Lok Sabha elections and to keep onion prices low, but both the central and state governments ignored farmer concerns, they claimed. 

The onion crop has a historical reputation for its political significance, often haunting governments due to its potential to influence regimes. In 1980, a surge in onion prices played a pivotal role in aiding Indira Gandhi’s ascent to power, leading to the ousting of non-Congress governments. Similarly, in 1998, skyrocketing onion prices led to the removal of Bharatiya Janata Party from office in Delhi and Rajasthan.

Read more: Myth of onion

In both instances, government changes were triggered by the sharp increase in onion prices, reflecting the sentiments of urban voters who expressed their discontent during elections. However, in the current scenario, it is the farmers and traders from rural India who are distressed by the decline in onion prices.

Presently, the wholesale price of onions stands at Rs 14-15 per kilogramme, according to the Lasalgaon Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), Asia’s largest wholesale onion market.

“In an era of a free-market economy, the government’s decision to ban onion exports is seen as an attempt to restrain onion farmers. This move could have otherwise provided significant income for both the growers and the government,” said Deepak Pagar, a farmer from Satana taluka. 

Consumers have the financial capacity to purchase onions at Rs 25-30 per kg, said Pagar, yet the rates persist at Rs 12-15 per kg.

Farmers assert that the current prices of onions in exporting countries such as the UAE are between Rs 120-140 per kg. “We are facing losses of Rs 4-5 lakh per season due to the export ban,” stated Kuber Jadhav, a farmer leader from Malwadi village in Deola taluka.

The growers claimed the central government had assured them of doubling their income. However, inflation, price suppression and increasing costs of fertilisers, seeds, and chemicals have elevated input costs and eroded profits.

This is the longest export ban the farmers have experienced. Between 2020 and 2023, before the ban was imposed, farmers were allowed to export with a 40 per cent export duty, which they found acceptable.

Over the past decade, numerous such bans and restraints have been enforced. Between 2014 and 2019 alone, the government halted exports 17 times to prevent onion prices from escalating, invoking the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992.

According to policy think tank Centre for Civil Society’s 2022 report, these decisions have cost farmers 20 per cent of their income.

To control rising prices, the central government added onions to the Essential Commodities Act in 2014.

Onions are a valuable commodity because they are widely grown and consumed. “In the past 10-15 years, apart from the traditional belt of Maharashtra and Karnataka, onions are now grown in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Hence, export ban has become a more widespread issue, gaining more political traction," Pagar said.

Onion farmers and exporters have pledged to express their sentiments during the Lok Sabha elections.

Pravin Kadam, director of Lasalgaon APMC and an onion exporter, said the government’s decision to export onions through the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED) and National Cooperative for Exports Ltd (NCEL) has also affected traders. 

“Farmers and traders sell produce on small margins and if that opportunity is taken away, it creates a heavy impact on finances. We even surrendered licenses in September 2023 to demand a rollback of export duty. For years, we have been suffering financially for a crop that can earn good money,” he said.

The decision led to protests in Maharashtra at that time. Farmers said they were forced to sell onions below the production cost, and these resentments have now electrified the political arena.

Several farmers stated their decision to vote against the ruling party. But Bharat Dighole, state president of the Onion Growers’ Association, believes that not all stakeholders may do so. 

“The traders have benefited as they could buy onions at low rates. Why would they vote against a decision that directly benefits them? Earlier, farmers and traders were on the same page over onions,” he said.

Pagar feels that regardless of the sentiments, there is no political representative who wishes to address the concerns of the farmers. “Regardless of the ruling parties or leaders, it is the farmers who have suffered, as the ruling government always tends to keep onion prices in check,” he said.

He cited examples of how member of parliament Supriya Sule raised issues of the commodity’s price rise on the Parliament floor in 2019. “Even Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar’s approach has been to keep the prices under control. The policies and government never favour the farmer,” the farmer said.

But despite strong sentiments against the ruling party, opposition parties have also failed to approach them and promise a solution, Dighole said. 

The farmers have outlined a long-term policy to share with political leaders. In a document widely circulated among onion farmers across social media platforms, farmers demand a minimum support price (MSP) from the government in case of excess production to ensure stable prices.

“The MSP should be calculated based on the actual expenses incurred by farmers, including labour costs and a reasonable profit margin,” the document read.

Onion farmers further demanded subsidised cold storage facilities to preserve surplus production, which can also be utilised to control prices during shortages. Furthermore, farmers asked for the removal of export restrictions in order to maintain a healthy market.

However, farmers feel that resentments should translate into voting out the ruling party. “We have to remain hopeful and give other parties an opportunity to address our concerns,” Kadam said.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Down To Earth