Once again, India is hyperventilating over onions.

In Delhi, say press reports, prices of the bulb have spiked by 25% between July and August. Similar spikes are being reported from elsewhere in the country.

In response, blame games are underway. NAFED, a central government agency that procures agricultural produce, has accused the Delhi government of ignoring its missives in April, June and July about an imminent rise in onion prices.

Also underway are counter-measures to cool down onion prices. The Delhi government has decided to sell onions at subsidised rates. The central government has decided to import 10,000 tons of onions from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt.

These responses are resulting in bemusement amongst food policy experts.

Under the skin

Are onion prices really abnormally high this year? Not quite, a senior United Nations official told Scroll.in on the condition of anonymity. “This is the pre-harvest period," he explained. As stocks from the previous harvest start to run out, there is always a shortage of onions during these months.

This is amply clear if you look at a 2012 report prepared by researchers at Bengaluru's Institute for Social and Economic Change for the Competition Commission of India. The report, tasked to understand whether India's onion markets are functioning properly, reported that onion arrivals at the country's mandis dry up during the summer and monsoon months before picking up by December.

During these months of low arrivals, prices climb.

Between 2010 and 2014, for instance, national monthly wholesale prices for onions rose between July and September in all but one year.

In perspective

Is it that prices are especially high this year? Not in the wholesale market. Between July and August, according to Agmarknet, run by the Ministry of Agriculture, the price of onions reaching India's vegetable mandis has climbed from Rs 2,274.99 per quintal to Rs 2,985.27. However, preceding years have seen far larger jumps in onion prices. In 2013, for instance, they had climbed from Rs 2,080.53 to Rs 3,486.93 per quintal during these two months.

According to the UN expert, the problem lies elsewhere. Retail prices, he says, are much higher than the wholesale prices. It is the traders who are hoarding onions. “When wholesale prices were around Rs 25 a kilo, retail prices were between Rs 45-Rs 50,” he said.

Instead of cracking down on them, the government is planning to import 10,000 tons of onions. Most of these onions, said the UN official, are meant for Delhi, even though the prices are high across the country.

The government, he said, "wants to show it is tackling the problem. However, this will hurt onion farmers by bringing down onion prices before the harvest.”

The government should instead, he said, crack down on the hoarders.