Onion politics

January 08, 2011


GRAVE issues such as Kashmir, terrorism and the water dispute have poisoned relations between Pakistan and India over the decades. However, up until now, onions did not feature prominently amongst the factors contributing to tension in the subcontinent. Yet the pungent vegetable is now at the centre of a mini diplomatic storm that has further soured relations between both countries over the past few days. The Pakistani commerce ministry banned the export of onions across the border by road and rail due to high prices and shortages at home. Food inflation is running high across South Asia and onion prices are soaring in both Pakistan and India, as the two have had bad harvests of the crop. Reported hoarding and speculation in India have added to the crisis. Onions are a touchy subject in India and past price hikes have brought down governments. In retaliation, farmers in Indian Punjab have stopped exporting vegetables to Pakistan. Traders on this side of the border have also criticised the ban, saying the government should have forewarned them. The crisis has spawned hectic diplomatic efforts, with the Indian foreign minister getting involved to resolve the dispute. But a section of the media reported on Saturday that the situation had begun to normalise as the Pakistani government had agreed to resume onion exports via rail.

There are inherent lessons within the politics of onions. Beyond the immediate, the crisis has highlighted the fact that a flourishing yet mostly silent trade continues across the two Punjabs. There has been criticism of the ban on both sides of the border, which shows there is a strong desire to trade. The onion and vegetable formula can perhaps be used as a basis to expand trade ties. If allowed to continue, trade might be helpful in creating the right atmosphere for peace in the region.