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90 Arrested in Salt Scam in India

November 2, 1998

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ For weeks, an onion shortage caused tears across India. Now traders are rubbing salt in the wound.

Police arrested 90 traders on Monday for hoarding salt and selling it at jacked-up prices. The government said raids on shops and factories would continue.

But a huge scramble for salt was on across the country as panicky consumers bought enough salt to last months, heeding rumors that it would disappear from the markets the same way onions have in recent weeks.

The salt traders were detained under the Essential Commodities Act, which forbids hoarding of listed goods. If convicted, they face a prison term of six months.

``I bought 10 kilograms (22 pounds). Now there should not be any problem,″ said Balwinder Shukla, an executive at a management school, who rushed to the local supermarket in the New Delhi suburb of Noida. Shukla’s family usually consumes a kilo of salt (2.2 pounds) per month.

A shortage of onions, which resulted in a price jump of from 9 cents per pound to as high as $1.10 per pound in some towns, has been blamed on poor crops and hoarding by unscrupulous wholesalers.

Panic-buying of salt forced up prices from about 2.7 cents a pound to as high as 54 cents a pound.

Thousands of angry consumers stormed warehouses and shops across northern India over the weekend in search of hoarded onions, salt and potatoes.

Monday, the government assured citizens there was enough salt available for six to eight months.

``We will ensure regular supply of salt through the length and breadth of the country at normal prices. The panic has been triggered by vested interests,″ Industry Secretary T.R. Prasad was quoted by Press Trust of India news agency as saying.

More than 12.1 million tons of salt is produced each year in India, one of the largest sources of salt in the world, according to industry estimates. Of this, about 3.3 million tons is exported to Africa, parts of Europe and some countries in Asia.

The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party accused opposition parties for the crisis, saying rumormongers from their ranks were out to damage the BJP’s prospects in state assembly elections in four states later this month.

Salt traders said there was a shortage, but not a crisis.

``We are not hoarding any salt, but the excessive rain during the monsoons and the cyclone earlier this year has caused huge damage to stocks,″ said H.B.S. Malhotra, who manufactures salt plants in the western state of Gujarat. Stocks should improve by January, he said.

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