The Telegraph
Saturday , January 11 , 2014
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SC hot potatoes: onion and car screen

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Taste or price?

New Delhi, Jan. 10: A Supreme Court bench today peeled itself away from activism, offering advice seasoned in humour that may bring forth tears than titters in kitchens but exercising judicial prudence.

“Mr Counsel, stop eating onions for two months and the prices will come down,” the bench told an advocate who moved the court to issue a directive to the Centre to rein in prices of vegetables.

The comment in half-jest was complemented by a reference to another much-debated issue: judicial activism.

“Don’t burden us with all these type of things…. It is like now we have no other business but to keep checking and arresting the prices of potatoes and onions,” the bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and J. Chelameshwar told Vishnu Pratap Singh Langawat, who filed the public interest litigation.

By declining to intervene, the court has steered clear of a perception that some judges are increasingly entering the domain of the executive — a view strengthened by legal scrutiny of private coaching centres and an order to set up a national green regulator.

Langawat had knocked the doors of the Supreme Court with the plea that the Centre be asked to invoke the Essential Commodities Act to prevent hoarding and cartelisation. The act is usually invoked by state governments.

“Farmers are often misled, market prices are manipulated and supplies reduced to create artificial crises and cause economic distress among the general public, especially the poor and weaker section of the society. It is basically traders and hoarders, middlemen with political clout, who are responsible for economically exploiting the primary producers (farmers) and the ultimate consumers (general public),” the PIL said.

So-called hoarders and cartels are the usual suspects invariably blamed for price rise but it is not clear what courts can do to tackle them.

Asked later if he will take the grievance to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s debut durbar tomorrow, Langawat said: “I have no such intention. My concern over the rising prices related to the entire country and not just Delhi.”

Although in jest, the court has touched upon a little-discussed issue by suggesting abstention from onion.

Nutrition scientists say a two-month, self-imposed ban on onions in the kitchen will not necessarily hurt human health.

“Onions have been shown to have certain health benefits, they’re nutritionally very good and they inject taste and flavour into food, but that doesn’t make them essential,” said Jamuna Prakash, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Mysore.

Over time, Prakash said, people have become used to consuming onions in diet. But sections of people in India have long rejected onions. Centuries-old traditional practices also mention Saatvik diets that do not contain certain foods such as onion and garlic.

“Onions primarily cater to taste,” Prakash said.

While the poor consume chapatis and onions laced with green chillies and salt, she said, such a diet alone would not be healthy as it does not provide nutrients that would be available from other vegetables, pulses and legumes.

Jai Gopal, the head of the Directorate of Onion and Garlic Research in Pune, estimates that India’s per capita onion consumption is about 7kg a person per year, nearly the same as the global average per capita onion consumption of 6kg.

America’s National Onion Association lists Libya as the country with the highest consumption of onions. An average Libyan consumes about 29kg of onions a year.