New Delhi: It’s not just the policymakers in the Narendra Modi government who are worried about soaring onion prices. Sleuths from the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department are also on their heels, ThePrint has learnt.
With the onion prices touching Rs 100 per kg, the Modi government has been forced to bring the country’s top law enforcement and intelligence agencies to the discussion table along with officials from agriculture and consumer affairs ministries, among others.
Government officials familiar with the matter told ThePrint that officials from the IB, RAW, ED and the I-T department have been mandated to work in tandem with the agriculture and consumer affairs ministries to ensure that onion prices are kept under check.
Since August, these officials have become a regular fixture at the meetings of the government’s Price Stabilization Management Committee (PSMC). The panel reviews prices of essential commodities whenever they shoot up and figures out the reason behind the surge and then decides on measures to be taken to rein them in.
A senior consumer affairs ministry official told ThePrint that I-T agents have been tasked with cross-checking the account books of wholesale dealers against the physical stocks of onions they hold.
“I-T officials can even confiscate the hoarded stock if it’s found beyond the stock limit,” said the ministry official.
In the last fortnight, 10 traders have been identified in Maharashtra and five in Rajasthan and Delhi for hoarding and cartelisation of onion. “Based on a tip-off that traders are hoarding onions, the I-T department has conducted raids on some traders in Maharashtra and Rajasthan,” added the ministry official.
Role of intelligence agencies
Intelligence agencies like the IB and RAW have been asked to keep a track of not only market chatter but also the movement of onion stock across major producing states and markets in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi to see if traders are hoarding, government officials ThePrint.
“IB and R&AW officials keep a track of price movement across the major onion mandis in the country and thereon provide necessary information to the law enforcement agencies for bringing down hoarding and cartelisation in the commodity,” a former intelligence agency official told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
According to a senior agriculture ministry official, intelligence officials have been involved with the PSMC after a gap of four years.
In 2015, intelligence and enforcement agency officials were involved when traders had fuelled similar fears of onion shortage to raise prices. At the time, a series of raids were conducted by I-T and other law enforcement agencies on onions and pulses traders.
The government even had to propose import of pulses from Myanmar and African nations after the prices of main pulses like tur doubled from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per quintal between March and December 2015.
In the first week of September 2015, onion prices had risen by 50 per cent and 20 per cent in the main markets of Lasalgaon and Pipalgaon in Maharashtra, and Delhi, respectively, said the agriculture ministry official quoted above.
“As far as I know the government has asked agencies like police, income tax etc to investigate whether there are any organised cartels which are taking advantage of shortages to hike up the prices,” former agriculture secretary Siraj Hussain told ThePrint.
Hussain said the issue of onion prices was also investigated by the Competition Commission of India in 2012.
Currently, retail onion prices across the country have been hovering around Rs 80 to Rs 90 per kg, even crossing the Rs 100-mark in some places. The government has been trying to tackle the issue since August when prices first touched Rs 40 per kg.