Onions, coconuts and the politics of taste in S.Asia

Food and politics have always been closely intertwined in the developing countries of South Asia, but when national taste buds are at stake the relationship can become especially volatile.

A shortage of onions in India, a dearth of coconuts in Sri Lanka and the soaring price of cooking oil in Bangladesh are currently posing a serious challenge to the governments of all three countries.

The issue is more cultural than nutritional.

Nobody's going to starve in India because of an onion shortage, but their food is either going to taste different or it's going to cost them more to keep it tasting the same - and that makes a lot of people unhappy.

Onions are considered an indispensable ingredient of most Indian cooking, providing - together with garlic and ginger - the pungent foundation for a thousand different curries and other dishes.

Similarly, the coconut - both its flesh and milk - is what gives Sri Lankan cuisine its unique flavour, tempering spices and enriching sauces.

The current "onion crisis" in India has seen prices triple to nearly 80 rupees a kilogramme (88 cents a pound), triggering allegations of hoarding, official incompetence and price-ramping by traders.

The humble onion has a surprisingly weighty track record of political influence.

In January 1980, Indira Gandhi exploited rising onion prices to storm back to power, appearing at campaign rallies waving huge strings of them with the message that a government that can't control onion costs has no right to govern.

And in 1998, a six-fold surge in the cost of onions was held partly responsible for the electoral defeat of the ruling Delhi state government.

Already under pressure over food inflation and wary of historical precedent, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has stepped in forcefully, banning onion exports, scrapping import taxes and even trucking in onions from arch-rival Pakistan.

But shoppers at a vegetable market in south Delhi, like Avinash Sangar who has been forced to halve his weekly onion purchase, were still furious.

"Of course it makes me angry, but what can I do about it? What can anyone do about it," Sangar said.

Suman Gupta, a housewife living in an up-market Delhi neighbourhood, was also cutting back.

"But you have to have some onions and tomatoes, otherwise the food becomes tasteless," Gupta said.

"If we are feeling the pinch, imagine the lower classes. They will have to eat their chapatis with salt and green chillies, that's all. It's very difficult," she added.

In the meantime, the Times of India is running tips from five-star hotel chefs on cooking onionless curries, and an enterprising tyre trader in Jharkand state is offering free onions with every purchase (five kilos for a truck tyre, one kilo for a car tyre).

In Sri Lanka, the government has also been forced to step in to alleviate a severe coconut shortage, banning the felling of coconut palms and, for the first time, arranging nut imports from India and Malaysia.

Coconuts are as indispensable to Sri Lanka's national cuisine as onions are to India's and shortages can have a similarly dramatic political impact.

In 1977, a leftist coalition government was voted out amid public anger at soaring food prices. The cost of coconuts had become so high that traders would often crack a nut and sell the two halves separately.

Last week, the government set a ceiling retail price of 30 rupees (27 US cents) per coconut in a network of state-owned stores, but stocks quickly sold out and then reappeared at more than double the price on the black market.

Coconuts have traditionally been a key Sri Lankan export, after tea and rubber, but the conversion of plantations for housing development and increased consumption has fuelled the current shortages.

In Bangladesh, the problem is a surge in the price of cooking oil, especially the edible palm oil used by most families.

The government, which sets the prices, has been quick to place the blame on traders, accusing them of ignoring state guidelines and profiteering.

"This is not an anarchic country," Commerce Minister Faruk Khan lectured traders last month. "You can't just set the price you want."

Others insist the authorities are not doing enough to enforce price caps.

After the cost of cooking oil shot up nearly 20 percent in a single day in November, the High Court in Dhaka ordered the government to explain why its inaction should not be declared illegal.

Anwar Hossain, a Dhaka-based grocer, said he was compelled to pass price hikes by his suppliers on to the consumer.

"Customers are enraged when they see the price jumps, but they have no choice but to buy it," Hossain said.

Bangladesh was among the countries hit by global unrest over food price rises in 2008, with thousands of workers rioting in the streets of Dhaka.

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