Lemon prices soared so much in India this summer they were given as wedding gifts and lemonade was seen as an 'elite' drink

Lemon prices soared so much in India this summer they were given as wedding gifts and lemonade was seen as an 'elite' drink
Local vegetable vendors sell lemons outside of the Ambernath railway station in Mumbai.Abhishek Anupam for Insider
  • The price of lemons spiked across India this summer after one of the hottest seasons in decades.
  • That led to lemon robberies and lemons being given as wedding gifts.
  • Prices are easing now, but the hike has changed how people cook and do business.

MUMBAI, India — Chandrashekhar Vallahburai Devender, the owner of a lemonade stand in Mumbai, has been selling lemonade for 12 years now and said he's "never seen the prices of lemons jump so high."

The price of the citrus fruit soared in India's summer months of April to June, thanks to the combination of a poor harvest — due to an unusually rainy winter and hot summer — and the global rise in gas prices, which bumped up transportation costs.

Lemons are a mainstay of Indian cuisine. But this summer, the fruit was considered a luxury in the country, so much so that there were lemon robberies, and lemons were given as wedding gifts. The humble lemonade became a drink of the elite.

Lemon and lemonade sellers in Mumbai markets said they could buy between five and seven lemons for 10 Indian rupee, or about $0.13, in 2021. But for the past few months, shoppers struggled get one lemon for that price.

Devender said he was earning up to 1,500 INR, or about $19, a day last year, but his income has been cut in half.


He has had to expand his business to a second stall selling buttermilk and tea to try to make up the difference. Because of that investment, "making profits and saving money won't be possible this year," he said.

Sanjay Sonawane, a 43-year-old lemon vendor in Mumbai, would sell 7-to-10 kilos of lemons a day in an ordinary summer. "This summer, I struggled to sell 5 kilos a day. Most customers would ask the price and walk away."

He has had to take out a loan to stay afloat, "and I haven't been able to pay it back yet," he said, adding that borrowing money has always been his last resort.

An extraordinary season

Alankrita Goswami, an agricultural economist, said the price hike was caused by several factors: high rainfall in the winter, which delayed lemon production in some states by several months, and "unusually high temperatures in early 2022," which meant fewer and lower-quality lemons were grown.

Lemon prices soared so much in India this summer they were given as wedding gifts and lemonade was seen as an 'elite' drink
Street vendors take shelter from the rain and the heat during India's monsoon season in July.Abhishek Anupam for Insider

Only 5% of the normal crop of lemons arrived this summer, according to the Agriculture Produce Market Committees.


"With all this on one side, we also had the spike in fuel and gas prices. That affected transportation cost as well," Goswami said.

India's love of lemons

"Lemons and Indian cooking go way back," said the Delhi-based food blogger Chaitali Aggarwal.

"Our grandmothers have been making jars and jars of lemon pickles for years and we've been finishing all our dishes with this citrusy goodness," she said, pointing out that lemon is a rich source of vitamin C. "I love a salad with every meal I have, which is always incomplete without a fresh lemon-juice dressing."

The summer heat in her home city of Delhi makes customers rush for homemade lemonades, lemon iced teas, and lemon-infused fresh water, which all require "massive amounts of lemon juice," Aggarwal said.

Some in the country believe that lemons ward off bad luck. You can often find a lemon with seven chilis outside Hindu homes or tied onto cars.

Lemon prices soared so much in India this summer they were given as wedding gifts and lemonade was seen as an 'elite' drink
Lemon prices have soared this summer in India, turning them into a luxury product.Abhishek Anupam for Insider

Aggarwal said that the price hike means her friends and family, who used to buy lemons in large quantities, have started buying fewer and using them sparingly.

"It simply made a very basic, everyday produce very premium," she said.

Ripple effects

The price rise has changed the way lemons are used in India, in turn affecting nutrition levels and businesses.

At restaurants and bars in some areas of Mumbai over the summer, lemon was not served as it usually is alongside onion slices and salad.

"Until last year, we'd give two halves of lemon with one single plate of pav bhaji," or mashed-potato curry with bread, said Savita Bhalerao, a 39-year-old street-food vendor in Mumbai. "Now I buy five lemons a day and I cut one lemon into four pieces."


In April, when lemon prices peaked, she stopped serving lemons completely. "We told our customers that we had already sprinkled lemon and we'd use a drop of vinegar to add that tangy taste instead," she said.

Aggarwal said vinegar is being substituted for lemon in home cooking as well, "which, needless to say, will be nothing like fresh lemon juice and won't have the health benefits of fresh lemons."

Threatening a way of life

Lemons are just one part of the overall food crisis for India and the world. Many food items have become more expensive in the country, pushed by rising fuel prices and supply-chain issues.

From February to April, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation reported that food prices rose 7.3% on average. The consumer price index reached 7.8% in April and dropped a bit, to about 7%, in May.

"The impending food crisis is downright petrifying," Aggarwal said. "Food now is a source of joy and a way of life, and the impending food crisis threatens it all."


Monsoon season — the rainy period from June to September — has now started and lemon prices have started to fall, partly due to a new harvest cycle beginning. There are three lemon seasons a year in India.

But Goswami doesn't expect the cost of lemons to get back to normal until sometime between October and December, assuming production returns to its usual rate.

While consumers may have some respite as prices drop, those in the lemon business may never recover.

Devender said he doesn't want his children to follow him into the family lemonade business now. "I want my kids to break the tradition, pass out of school, and have a stable income source," he said.

"I don't want them to go through what I have been through."