NEW DELHI — C an a country of 1.2 billion people really come undone over a lowly vegetable?
In India these days, the answer is yes.
Onion prices, often volatile here, have soared in recent weeks, sending a country that views the vegetable as a culinary staple into a tailspin.
Cable news reporters do breathless stand-ups from local markets. Special onion vans have been dispatched to affected areas. Onion jokes pepper Twitter and Facebook. Protesters have taken to the streets wearing garlands of the pungent vegetable.
The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, was even asked about onions during a recent news conference.
“We have no immediate capacity to bring down onion prices,” he said with a slight smile.
“The Great Indian Tearjerker,” as one local newspaper dubbed the saga, began in August, when the price of onions nationwide inexplicably began to rise. In the weeks that followed, onion prices in the capital and other major cities have at times topped 70 cents a pound, an increase of about 280 percent.
The reason for this is as multi-layered as the veggie itself. Rajan has suggested that rising consumption may be a factor. Weather — a drought followed by an overlong monsoon season — is also an issue.
Other public officials have blamed darker forces, suggesting that traders at the big vegetable markets are fixing prices or that hoarders are keeping the bulbs tucked away in cold storage until the prices rise. (One blogger nicknamed these folks “onionnaires.”)
Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, who rose to power during a previous onion crisis, in 1998, has held news conferences in recent days to ask for patience and plead for black marketing to stop.
“We are trying our best to see that prices come down,” Dikshit said. (She later told reporters that she had eaten onions with her bhindi, or okra, for the first time in many weeks, prompting the opposition party to send her a condolence basket of the bulbs.)
Indians have grappled with rising inflation for months, with food prices up 18 percent this year over last — a major contributor to the country’s slowing economic growth. Even if the economy rebounds next year, as many analysts predict, high food prices are likely to remain a central campaign issue ahead of parliamentary elections in the spring. Prices of tomatoes and potatoes are rising, as well.
Recently, billboards have popped up around New Delhi showing Narendra Modi, the opposition party’s prime ministerial candidate, posed before a heap of onions and tomatoes, shaking his fist in indignation at the “waist-breaking inflation.”
“We will change India!” the poster declares.
In the meantime, many of India’s poor and even middle-class citizens have been forced to cut down on onions or stop eating them altogether, which has been a tough change for some. In farming communities in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab, many field workers come to work with nothing more than a roti (Indian bread), a raw onion and a green chili pepper. That’s lunch.
Narendar Singh, 47, a gas station employee, said he has not been able to buy fruit for his family of five for four months and has cut down on vegetables, buying the cheapest gourds and chickpeas available.
“We cannot afford to buy onions to spice up the meal, either,” he said. “Instead of tomatoes, we now use tamarind pulp to sour the curry.”
His dream, he said, is to educate his three children so they can afford fresh fruit and vegetables — and motor scooters.
Indian officials say they expect onion prices to drop in the coming weeks because of increased imports and other measures.
One recent morning in Delhi’s vegetable market, as a cool November rain began to fall, a group of onion farmers who sell to wholesalers said they had brought about half as many sacks of onions this year as they did last year because the extended monsoon had spoiled their crop. Even now, they were nervously monitoring the weather back home in the western state of Rajasthan via their cellphones; it was raining again, they said, and if it didn’t stop, the rest of the onions would rot in the field.
They said that they would get a fair price for their wares but that they were not to blame for the rising prices, pointing the finger at the middlemen and wholesalers.
“They buy it from us for 30 rupees and sell it for 100 rupees. What can we do about it?” lamented Nizamuddin Khan, 30, one of the farmers. Thirty rupees amount to less than 50 cents.
He said onions had been unfairly singled out in the country’s ongoing debate about rising food prices.
“Everybody’s talking about onions — why can’t they talk about tomatoes and potatoes?” Khan said. “Their prices are also touching the sky. Onions have become a political issue.”
Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Rajasthan is in eastern India. The state is in western India. The article has been updated.