It was midnight on September 13. The people of Bangladesh got to know that friendly-neighbour India has banned the export of onions across the border. At that time, a few hundred onion-laden trucks were waiting at the India-Bangladesh border.
Why did the Modi government suddenly embark on onion-politics? Various Indian agriculture organisations have opined that onion has become a political issue.
Only 10 to12 states in India produce onions including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. Of them, one fourth is grown only in Maharashtra, which is almost 49 lakh tonnes every year. This is the favourite onion among the people of Bangladesh.
Currently, Maharastra's Shiv Sena party is not in good terms with the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. Due to rain and flood, Maharastra could not produce the targeted amount of onions this year. Therefore, a scarcity of onions was found in the Indian domestic markets. Besides, the recession caused by Covid-19 has also impacted the Indian economy.
India earns 15.4 percent of its GDP from the agriculture sector. Hence, the Indian government should focus on protecting the farmers' rights. In reality, the Indian government is paying more attention to save the consumers' interest which has backlashed the Modi-government.
For geographical structure, Bangladesh is surrounded by India and for many years the country has been supporting India in various financial activities. For example, using the land route of Bangladesh to transport goods without significant taxes. There is no doubt that the sudden ban on onion export is targeted towards Bangladesh. Following the recent political conflict between India and China, both the countries are trying to make Bangladesh a part of it. The Bangladesh government is maintaining a healthy relationship with both countries and is not willing to take any side. China is funding several development projects including Padma Bridge in Bangladesh, which is very important for the country.
The Modi government did not return the support it had once received from its Bangladesh counterpart which has become visible to all. A few days ago, former Indian diplomat Bina Sikri in an article wrote how the Indian government has supported Bangladesh. Any person who will read the article will understand how nominal the support was.
The Indian government launched onion politics at a time when Bangladesh is already having a hard time to tackle flood and Covid-19. The Bangladesh market is dependent on Indian onions because it is a perishable item and can be imported from the neighbouring country within a short time.
India decided on the export after keeping approximately 25,000 tonnes of onions stuck at the border for five days. This decision will impact the onion importers as there are chances that the onions will start rotting in the meanwhile. Therefore, before accepting these onions, the government should go through an international standard quality assurance test.
On the other hand, customers in Bangladesh are having to buy onions at a much higher price. Also, a group of dishonest traders are taking advantage of the unannounced ban and creating a syndicate to increase the price of this kitchen essential.
A similar thing happened last year when India announced and banned onion exports to Bangladesh and as a result, the country had to import it from China, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Turkey by paying a much higher price. As a result, the consumers also had to pay extra for each kilogramme of onions.
China tops the rank among onion producing countries, India is second while Bangladesh ranks even below Pakistan. We have been observing this onion politics for the last few years. Therefore, our government and agriculture ministry should take realistic steps in this regard. The government should take actions so that other countries can not play onion politics on us.
We produce almost the same amount of onions as we consume each year. Our yearly consumption of onions is 25 lakh tonne, while we produce almost 24 lakh tonnes. Although the deficit is not much, but our lacking in storage of this kitchen essential creates a big deficit amounting to almost 10 lakh tonnes. In normal season India exports the onions.
Many people are asking did the decision taken by the Modi government to put its Bangladesh counterpart under pressure? Any government would rarely stop exporting goods without notice. Such events take place when a war-like-situation arises between two countries. Such a situation never arose between India-Pakistan because Indian goods were banned in Pakistan without notice.
The Modi government did injustice on both Bangladesh and the Indian state of Maharastra. A big number of farmers in Maharashtra are connected with the production of onions. Therefore, the Modi government not only targeted those farmers but also the rulers of Maharastra -- the Shiv Sena. This decision has impacted Maharastra and the other onions producing states. It seems that the Indian government is trying to please the consumers. They should have rather pleased both the farmers and consumers while maintaining the regional friendship.
The sad story is on the night when the Indian government banned onion export to Bangladesh, that same day around 1500 tonnes of Hilsha fish entered West Bengal as a gift from the Bangladesh government ahead of the Durga Puja. Many suspects sending Hilsha to West Bengal made the central government unhappy. Because the West Bengal is ruled by the Trinamool government.
Last year Bangladesh requested that the countries should provide prior notification regarding the import and export of agricultural products. But it was not honoured. Such decisions by the Indian government can create a rift in our internal politics.
These decisions by the Indian government puts extra pressure on Awami league, the Bangladeshi political party that led the Liberation War. India should keep in mind that a vast population of Bangladesh is involved with anti-India politics. The Jatiya Party and many other left-wing political parties were once upon a time anti-India supporters. The other political party that rose in power in opposition of Awami League, they were clearly against India. Thus, this type of decisions by Modi-government create an uncomfortable situation for Awami government. All the religious parties of Bangladesh more or less against India, therefore, it is hard to believe that foreign policymakers of India aren't aware of the fact.
Every year, during the join summits between the border guards of India-Bangladesh, India assured to curb border killings. But the reality is India is continuing their onion politics and border killings simultaneously. The recently concluded joint summit between the countries border forces decided joint move to curb border killing, but it is not clear how that will be done.
India is becoming a super-power economy in the world, but they are becoming distant with the neighbouring country for foreign policies. Bangladesh is their last resort in the region. Till today, people of Bangladesh recall the favours of India during the Liberation War and express their gratitude for the country.
The seeds of suspicion instilled by the Modi government by creating NRC and CAA is being instigated again and again. The onion will only make the situation worse. Earlier, the Modi government promised to notify before stopping the ban of any products but they did not keep their promise. I hope the Modi government as well as Indian politicians will understand the severity of the issue and take necessary steps.
Cotton is one of the important agricultural goods in India. India is the largest cotton producing country in the world. Bangladesh and China are the largest markets for Indian to export cotton. Pakistan also produces cotton on a large scale.
According to the 2017-18 fiscal year, the bilateral trade between India-Bangladesh accounted for $9.6billion. India imports Bangladesh products worth almost $1billlon. Each year, Bangladesh imports cotton worth $1 and 1.5billion. The cotton factories of Bangladesh are regularly facing difficulties while importing cotton from India. Bangladeshi spinners are dissatisfied about the quality of Indian cotton.
Yet, they import cotton from India for cost efficiency. Whenever productions of cotton get hampered in India for natural disasters, India forgets about the friendship and bans the export of cotton. There are other examples of such a ban on rice, onion. Bangladesh needs to focus on to achieve self-sufficiency in agricultural products. The cotton factories in Bangladesh should be prepared for the cotton production disaster in India.
India lifted the ban on onion export after 5 days which is why Bangladesh should be strict to make sure India can't take such advantage in future. Bangladesh should also prepare so that India cannot create such issues in the future.
The country should think about alternatives and also reach a consensus with India to ensure that the country cannot stop the export of onions at any cost. The West Bengal loves Hilsha fish from Padma river. We can reach an agreement by which Bangladesh will export the fish to West Bengal on special occasions. It is a cultural practice to share with the neighbor, and we are proud of our culture. If needed, we can grow the same culture for hilsha. In that case, none of the countries can stop exporting their products.
The writer is a political analyst