How Bengalis’ Craze For Hilsa Is Being Met Through Illegal Imports From Bangladesh

How Bengalis’ Craze For Hilsa Is Being Met Through Illegal Imports From Bangladesh(Flickr)
  • Fish traders of Kolkata who have links with smugglers say that the BSF isn’t bothered about the entry of ilish.

    “Their priority is to check smuggling out of cattle, stop human trafficking, and entry of drugs etc. Smuggling in of ilish is something they aren’t bothered about", a trader told 'Swarajya.

This is one ‘contraband’ that India’s border guards manning the 2,217 kilometer-long West Bengal-Bangladesh border do not really bother to stop from coming in. And not the least because Bengalis are more than willing to pay an arm and a leg for it.

The adult hilsa, or ilish as the Bengalis call the fish, is no longer found in Bengal’s rivers and coasts. Overfishing, driven by Bengalis’ craze for the fish, has led to that. But the adult ilish, which is what Bengalis pine for, is available aplenty in Bangladesh, thanks to effective and stringent conservation efforts in the neighbouring country.

However, Bangladesh regulates export of the fish to Bengal in order to keep prices of ilish in check in the domestic market and also as a penalty of sorts for Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s intransigence in signing the Teesta water-sharing agreement (read this).

Bangladesh had put the curbs (on export of ilish to Bengal) in place 10 years ago when the Bengal chief minister sabotaged an agreement on sharing of the river’s waters that then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to have signed with Bangladesh. Four years later, when Mamata Banerjee was served ilish for lunch at the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s residence and requested the premier to allow export of the fish to Bengal, Sheikh Hasina politely but firmly told her that the export curbs would be eased only if she allowed more water from the Teesta to flow into Bangladesh.

The ‘illegal’ imports

With demand for the adult ilish that weighs over 1.5 kilos being very high in Bengal, the ‘illegal’ import of the fish flourishes. Most of the delectable ilish from Bangladesh is smuggled in through the porous and riverine sections of the international border. The most frequently used sections are Angrail and Hakimpur in North 24 Parganas district adjacent to Kolkata and Hilli in Dakshin Dinajpur district of North Bengal.

The Ichamati river forms the border between India and Bangladesh at Angrail in Gaighata tehsil of North 24 Parganas while the Sonai river forms the international border at Hakimpur in Swarupnagar tehsil of the same district. Hakimpur lies south of Angrail. It takes about three hours to reach Kolkata by road from both Agrail and Hakimpur.

Since the border at both these places is riverine, it is not fenced and very easy for smugglers to dodge the Border Security Force (BSF).

Hilli forms India’s landmass that juts into Bangladesh. The Jamuna river flows from Bangladesh into Hilli and then crosses the international border again to continue its journey through Bangladesh. As such, smuggling contraband across the border is quite easy.

According to fish traders in Kolkata, about 200 kilos to 300 kilos of ilish are being smuggled into India through Angrail and Hakimpur everyday and about 150 kilos to 200 kilos through Hilli.

“All the ilish coming in now weigh a minimum of 1.7 kilos. This ilish is from the Padma and Meghna rivers and is very tasty. The retail price right now in Kolkata markets is Rs 3000 a kilo of the fish weighing between 1.7 kilos to two kilos and Rs 3300 a kilo for the fish weighing more than two kilos,” said Bimal Saha, a prominent fish trader.

Across the border (in Bangladesh), the price of the same fish is about Bangladesh Taka 600 to 700 per kilo (Indian Rupees 510 to 605) for a fish that weighs between 1.5 kilo to two kilo and Taka 900 per kilo (Rs 780) for a wish that weighs over two kilos.

The wholesale price of the fish in Bangladesh (and the smugglers procure it at wholesale rates) is about half the retail price. There is, thus, a killing to be made by smuggling out the fish to Bengal.

Fish traders of Kolkata who have links with smugglers say that the BSF isn’t bothered about the entry of ilish. “Their priority is to check smuggling out of cattle, stop human trafficking, and entry of drugs etc. Smuggling in of ilish is something they aren’t bothered about,” Saha told Swarajya.

Bapi Biswas, another fish trader of Kolkata, says that the BSF are well aware of the Bengalis’ love for ilish and, thus, look the other way when the fish is smuggled in.

“The ilish that comes in through Angrail and Hakimpur is very fresh. Fresh catch is transported within eight to ten hours in ice-boxes from the small river ports along Padma and Meghna rivers to Jessore and Satkhira from where they are sent to Angrail and Hakimpur respectively. The fish is then taken to the major fish markets of Kolkata. Thus, the customer gets to buy delectable ilish from the Padma and Meghna rivers that have been caught barely 18 to 20 hours earlier,” said Biswas.

The Ganga takes the name of Padma once it enters Bangladesh while the Brahmaputra becomes the Jamuna. The Padma and Jamuna merge and continue to flow downstream as the Padma, which then merges with the Meghna and flows into the Bay of Bengal as the Meghna.

Bengalis contend that the ilish from the Padma and the Meghna taste the best and are thus ready to pay a premium for it. Saha and Biswas say that ilish lovers in Kolkata don’t mind paying Rs 6500 for a two-kilo ilish.

The ilish from the upper reaches of the Padma are smuggled into Bengal through Hili and that caters mostly to the North Bengal market. Another route for smuggling in the fish is through the sea. “A large number of barges take fly ash from Kolaghat and other thermal power plants in Bengal through the Sunderbans to Bangladesh. On their return journey to Bengal, many bring in the ilish concealed in their cargo holds. But this supply is erratic and not many barge ‘captains’ are willing to indulge in this smuggling,” said Biswas.

Also, the barges do not generally make unscheduled stops at the fishing ports on the Meghna and, thus, it is not possible to load the contraband ilish on them. And it takes longer for the barges to travel from Bangladesh to Bengal.

Why the acute shortage of adult ilish in Bengal

The ilish is an anadromous fish that lives in the sea but migrates up rivers to spawn. The fish from the Bay of Bengal thus migrate up the Meghna-Padma rivers (in Bangladesh) and the Hooghly-Bhagirathi (in Bengal) to spawn. This migration upstream to spawn happens between mid-January and March-end, and again from late-June to late-September.

It is when the adult fish is on its way back to the sea after spawning that it is at its delectable best. “That’s because it would have lost a lot of its salinity (from staying in the sea) and also fed on a lot of phytoplanktons in the river,” said chef Manjari Burman who is known for her ilish festivals.

But barely any adult fish can be found in the Hooghly river. That’s because Bengal’s fishing trawlers using fine nets catch most of the fish even when they are juveniles from the sea. The ones that survive the fishing nets of the trawlers are caught even when they are traveling upstream to spawn.

Bengalis’ love for the roe (mass of eggs) of the ilish is another major reason for the disappearance of the ilish from the Hooghly. “The roe of the ilish is inarguably very tasty and Bengalis love to simply fry and eat it. But if the fish with the roe is caught regularly, the fish will simply disappear and that is exactly what has happened,” food columnist Shreyoshi Sengupta told Swarajya.

Fish traders say that the demand for ilish surged a little over two decades ago. That, perhaps, was due to the spurt in disposable incomes among the middle-classes brought about by the liberalisation of the Indian economy. “In the past, Bengalis would eat the ilish, which was always priced considerably higher than other fish, sparingly and mostly during the monsoon season. But with more money in their hands, Bengalis started demanding ilish all year round and that triggered indiscriminate fishing,” said Saha, the fish trader.

Also, in the past, it was a time-honoured practice among Bengalis to stop consuming the ilish after Lakshmi Puja (usually late-October) and till Saraswati Puja (early-February). This was a traditional conservation practice and made a lot of sense: the ilish fishlings, after hatching (mid to late monsoons), stay in the sweetwater rivers for about four to five months before migrating to the sea and becoming an adult there.

The abstinence during these three to four months allowed the young ilish (called khoka ilish) to grow and migrate out to the sea. But over the past two decades, few Bengalis have bothered about this traditional abstinence and their greed for ilish even in the winter season has led to fishermen catching the khoka ilish. This has also led to the extinction of the ilish from the Hooghly and Bengal’s coast.

Bangladesh, in stark contrast, strictly regulates fishing. Catching hilsa is banned during the spawning season and when the ilish migrates from the sea upstream. Bengal also has similar restrictions, but the state government does not bother to enforce them. Enforcement of the restrictions is extremely strict in Bangladesh and penalties for violations are also very stiff. The Bangladesh authorities confiscate fishing nets, boats and trawlers of the violators and impose huge fines.

This has stopped violation of the fishing restrictions in Bangladesh and has resulted in an abundance of the ilish along the Bangladesh coast and also in its rivers. And that is why ilish lovers in Bangladesh pay barely a fourth of the price of the fish that a Bengali in Kolkata shells out. The price for greed is, indeed, a stiff one!

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.


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