Unseasonable weather has played a cruel trick on Indians this year, raising temperatures to record levels while making one of the most popular summer drinks, lemonade, too expensive for most.
The price of limes in India has soared since February, leading local media to dub the fruit “sour gold”. In places such as New Delhi and Mumbai, one lime can cost at least 10 rupees, about five times the price three months ago.
A kilogram sells for between 250 and 300 rupees ($3.30-$3.90), more than the minimum daily wage of about 180 rupees.
Limes, often called lemons in India despite being a different fruit, are a staple ingredient in many Indian dishes. Demand soars in the summer, when street carts selling lemonade, popularly known as “shikanji”, usually have long lines of customers waiting to quench their thirst.
But not this year, thanks to the soaring price and a heatwave that has raised temperatures in some areas to levels not recorded for more than 120 years.
“As lemons are essential for most summer drinks and salads, we ended up buying them for 20 rupees apiece last week,” Arshi Aggarwal, a marketing professional, told The National.
“They do get costly in summer, but this time it felt like we were buying saffron instead of lemons,” she said, likening the fruit to the world's most expensive spice.
Lemonade sellers say they have had to nearly double their prices, from about 15 rupees a glass to 25 rupees.
“Because of the cost of limes I had to increase the price of shikanji. But since it is too hot, not many people are stepping out and those who are, are unable to afford the drink … everything is already expensive,” said Mohammed Kalim, who runs a lemonade kiosk at the railway station in Nizamuddin, one of the biggest in Delhi.
On average, India produces more than 3 million tonnes of limes annually from two to three harvests. The increase in prices this year is mainly because of the effect of freak weather on the latest crop. First, unseasonal rainfall in October as the trees were flowering, and then the onset of the heatwave that affected the fruit before they were due for harvest in March.
Recent sharp increases in fuel prices have contributed by raising transportation costs.
The high price of limes has attracted the attention of criminals, with hundreds of kilograms reported stolen from orchards and shops in recent weeks.
In northern Uttar Pradesh state, lime growers posted guards armed with sticks to protect their crop after thieves stole 750kg from an orchard in Kanpur city. About 100 kilos were stolen from a warehouse in the state's Bareilly district. On Friday, a farmer in Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, reported the theft of 150kg of limes.
Limes are now considered valuable enough to make wedding gifts, with a groom in Gujarat receiving two boxfuls last month.
“I have been selling limes for the past 30 years but this is the first time prices have shot up like this,” said Mohammed Raees, a wholesaler at Delhi’s Okhla vegetable market.
“Not many people are buying limes.”