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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 17:01 GMT
Indians shed tears over onions
By Navdip Dhariwal
BBC News, Delhi

Onions have recently risen 500% in price.

Delhi's popular Radio One breakfast show hosts a daily phone-in - and the hot topic for the past couple of weeks has been the price of onions.

The lines have been buzzing as listeners call in on one of the most politically sensitive issues in India.

One South Indian restaurant owner calls in to complain that he can no longer afford to carry on with his business because all his dishes rely so heavily on onions that cooking them is just too expensive.

This humble root vegetable is a staple of the Indian diet.

Even on the station's normally sedate woman's hour housewives are calling in irate - demanding to be instructed in cooking dishes that don't require onions.

'Tax on poor'

Priya Baweja, the programme presenter, says it's the topic everyone is talking about.

We use a kilo a day - I can't buy anything else once I've paid for this bag
Delhi shopper

"We have to give out recipes and we get lots of calls on the high prices," she says.

In the morning market hessian sacks filled with red onions usually arrive by the lorry load - but supplies have begun to trickle. Stall holders are slowly shifting their merchandise but customers are reluctant to buy.

Prices have shot up fivefold - from five rupees a kilo to 25 in the space of a week.

"The recent rainfall has slowed everything down," one trader says. "There is so much demand and yet little supply. Customers don't want to pay - I can't blame them.

"It's just too expensive a price to pay for most households."

The customers I speak to say the same - one woman has to cook for eight family members and her budget simply won't stretch to paying 25 rupees a kilo.

Onions in Delhi market
Delhi shoppers are feeling the pinch

"We use a kilo a day," she says. "I can't buy anything else once I've paid for this bag."

Others have been stockpiling sacks of onions fearful that the hike may continue.

Even India's wealthy middle classes who have benefited from the country's 8% economic growth are now complaining.

But it's the ordinary man and woman on the street who are worst off.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a leading economist, says "inflation is bad news".

"It's like a tax on the poor - it indirectly transfers wealth to the well-off sections of society from the underprivileged and when it's driven by the price of food products it's the worst kind."

Staple food

Onions have a special status in India. In 1998 the capital's chief minister was forced to resign when he suggested poor people should give up onions when the price became too high.

Now, with state elections under way, the governing Congress Party is under pressure.

Elections have been lost because of popular resentment. In Delhi, the state government is doing what it can.

There are makeshift market stalls manned by security guards selling onions cheaper than the going market rate and the sacks of onions here are fast disappearing.

But - with the budget due to be announced on Wednesday and inflation at an all-time high - this humble vegetable threatens to bring a tear to many a politicians' eye.

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