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PM queries Pawar on onions

With high onion prices bringing people across India to tears, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today queried agriculture minister Sharad Pawar on the reasons for the spike, while announcing relief for distressed farmers in Maharashtra.

delhi Updated: Dec 24, 2010 18:59 IST

With high onion prices bringing people across India to tears, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Friday queried agriculture minister Sharad Pawar on the reasons for the spike, while announcing relief for distressed farmers in Maharashtra.

The matter was raised after an all-party delegation, led by Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, met with the prime minister to seek relief for the state's farmers. Among those present was Pawar, who is from Maharashtra, the main onion-growing state.

At the meeting, the prime minister announced a Rs 400-crore advance relief package for farmers affected by unseasonal rains in the state that damaged several crops, notably the onion produce, sending prices spiralling.

"Requirement of further assistance will be considered in light of the assessment made by an inter-ministerial central team, after visiting the state," said a statement from the Prime Minister's Office.

Manmohan Singh's chat with Pawar later came against the backdrop of opposition's angst at an alleged statement by the agriculture minister three days ago that onion prices could take three weeks to come down.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) slammed the government not just for high onion prices, but also for what it called were divergent voices and approach by various ministries on steps needed to bring prices of onions and other vegetables down.

"There are contradictory statements of different ministries regarding the steps required to control the price of onions, as for example whether official agencies should import onions or not," said its politburo.

Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule defended the comment.

"He (Pawar) could have easily said that the prices would come down within a week's time. But then, if the prices had failed to come down, he would have been criticised again," Sule said in Baramati, her constituency.

Onion prices, meanwhile stabilised at Rs 40 a kg, after shooting up to over Rs 85 per kg, thanks to some 175 truckloads, ferrying around 1,500 tonnes, arriving from Pakistan via the Atari-Wagah border in Punjab.

The Delhi government also ensured availability of onions through some 400 Mother Dairy outlets in the capital and select Kendriya Bhandar shops, officials said.

As high prices of onions, fruits, milk, eggs, meat and poultry pushed India's annual food inflation to double-digits, the government took more steps Thursday to augment supplies and assured people their financial burden will ease soon.

Apart from asking the state-run trading agencies MMTC, STC and PEC to import onions, cabinet secretary K M Chandrasekhar chaired a key meeting and decided to move the tuber from all possible places to deficit states like the national capital.

Chandrasekhar's remarks came as India's food inflation based on wholesale prices zoomed to double-digit 12-13% for the week ended Dec 11 from 9.46% the week before, marking the third successive week of rise and a four-month high.

Commerce minister Anand Sharma on Thursday said some one million tonnes of the crop, against the annual production of 18 million tonnes, was lost due to unseasonal rains but that supplies will be augmented through duty-free imports and the ban on exports.