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Govt again fails to rein unstable onion market

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09th-Sep-2020       
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THE government on Monday warned against hoarding and creating artificial crisis of onion, a key essential item, in the country. The warning came against a backdrop of sudden hike in onion prices in the market. Local onion was sold at Tk 60-70 a kilogram on Monday which was Tk 40-50 per kg a week back. Imported onions were retailed at Tk 45-55 a kg from Tk 30-40 a kg earlier. Trading Corporation of Bangladesh (TCB) recorded a 40-54 per cent hike in onion prices in a week. Traders concerned said a surge in import costs as well as low domestic production is leading to such a hike.
Crisis of onion is neither new in Bangladesh, nor is the ongoing crisis a sudden one. But such announcements by the government will have no impact on the situation without actions --- it's rather like blowing hot air into a balloon in the expectation that it will come down to earth.  Bangladesh needs 2.4 million tonnes of onion a year, according to government statistics. The country usually imports 1.1 million tonnes of onion from neighbouring India to meet its shortfall in supply.
The country experienced several onion shortages --- with prices increasing as recently as last year. Factors to reduce shortages include reducing dependence on India by importing onion from alternative sources such as China, Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan and Vietnam. Imports should be made carefully assessing their impacts on local prices so that price reduction does not become a disincentive for Bangladeshi farmers to produce onion.
The authorities should be vigilant against speculative storage between September and December, when Bangladesh is most dependent on onion imports. To increase domestic production we need to ensure supply of high-quality inputs --- particularly seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides -- to farmers in a timely manner. But these actions were never taken by the administration in any previous shortage situation.
If Bangladesh's policymakers believed that the last price hike of onion was an irrational act, orchestrated by a market syndicate, then why didn't they amend the Import Policy or Customs Law which does not currently permit the NBR to carry out investigation into the stock of importers. The mobile courts rather penalised small traders for selling onion at higher prices in 2019 which had a more limited impact on the situation.
The answer is simple--the administration didn't take the situation seriously. The problem of the 'artificial market' could have been temporarily resolved had the Ministry of Commerce taken the decision a little earlier in 2019. When imported onions enter the market, the price automatically goes down because the supply has increased. Rather the then Commerce Minister compounded the incompetence of his Ministry by stating that prices wouldn't go down Tk 100. Such actions only highlight the inefficiency of the Ministry.

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