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How Bengalis’ Love For A Fish Impacts Delhi’s Relation With Dhaka 

The Hilsa (Wikimedia Commons) 
Snapshot
  • This is the tale of a river, a fish, and two powerful women.

This tale does not have a happy ending, at least not as yet, for the Bengalis of Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee’s continued intransigence over sharing the waters of the Teesta with Bangladesh has caused a lot of distress on both sides of the international border. In Bangladesh, it has led to vast tracts of farmlands dependant on the river’s water for irrigation turning fallow due to the flow of the river dwindling to a trickle during the lean season (December to March).

The consequences in Bengal have been equally, if not more, distressing for the Bengalis: the deprivation of the famed hilsa (or ilish, as Bengalis call it) caught from Bangladesh’s Padma-Meghna rivers.

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Bangladesh imposed a ban on the export of hilsa in August 2012 and though it officially lifted the ban in January last year (2018), Bengal remains on an unofficial red list. Though the official reason for imposing the ban was a sharp drop in hilsa catch in Bangladesh and overfishing due to surging international demand, the real reason, say many, was Banerjee’s opposition to a water-sharing agreement that was to be signed during the then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 2011.

Bangladesh Ilish Is The Best

Though hilsa is available in Bengal as well, it is the fish from the Padma and Meghna rivers of Bangladesh that is --- to most Bengalis --- worth their ilish, the most delectable. And to all Bengalis, the ilish is inarguably a quintessential part of a Sunday meal, especially during the monsoons. The hilsa is part of Bengali folklore, and has made its way to Bengali songs, art, literature and movies.

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For the last six years, Bengalis in Bengal have been making do with the much less tastier ilish from the Hooghly and the Bay of Bengal. And also ilish from the Narmada, Godavari and Irrawaddy, which fish gourmets generally sneer at for their inferior and even flat taste.

No ilish can measure up to the ones from the Padma and Meghna rivers. Ganga takes the name of Padma once it enters Bangladesh while Brahmaputra becomes Jamuna after crossing the border from Assam. These two join to become the Padma, which then merges with the Meghna further downstream before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.

The hilsa is an anadromous fish, meaning that it lives most of its life in the sea but swims upstream into rivers---Meghna-Padma and Hooghly-Bhagirathi---to spawn in sweet water. There are two migratory seasons: late June to September and January to March-end. After spawning, the adult fish journeys back to the sea and this is when it is the most delectable because it has lost most of the salinity of the sea and also fed for some time on the rivers’ phytoplanktons to acquire a distinct taste.

“The hilsa caught while journeying back to the sea after spawning is simply heavenly and to die for. That’s because the fish has some amount of salinity, is an adult and has fed on phytoplanktons of the river. The phytoplanktons of every river is different and unique and that perhaps explains why the hilsa from the Padma-Meghna rivers is so mouth-watering. And it is the adult hilsa, over 1.5 kilograms in weight, which is the most savoury,” says Shreyoshi Sengupta, a food columnist who has authored a few Bengali cookbooks and is considered to be an expert on fish.

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Dwindling Catch

This prized adult hilsa, weighing 1.5 kilos and more, is barely ever available in Bengal. This is because none of the fish survive for that long. Bengalis need to blame their greed to have ilish throughout the year, and their non-adherence to the abstinence of yore, for this.

Deep sea trawlers catch huge quantities of the hilsa, with its roe, even before it can swim into the rivers for spawning. This has led to a calamitous decline in the population of the fish over the past two decades. And the hilsa that manages to evade the nets of the deep sea trawlers are caught when they enter the rivers even before they can spawn. Only a fraction survive the nets of trawlers in the sea and fishing boats in the rivers to ultimately spawn.

The hilsa’s roe is also very prized and, for Bengalis, it is akin to caviar. A little over two decades ago, the demand for hilsa with its roe went up exponentially in Bengal. Fish suppliers attribute this surge in demand to the benefits of liberalisation ultimately reaching Bengal and the growth in the service sector which put more money in the pockets of a lot of people. With their financial lot improving, albeit modestly, hilsa-loving Bengalis started demanding the fish on their plates all round the year. The surge in demand led to overfishing and a sharp decline in the population of the fish in Bengal’s rivers.

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Traditionally, Bengalis never used to consume the hilsa between late-October/early-November and end-January/early-February. It was the practice to offer a pair of the fish to Goddess Lakshmi during Lakshmi Puja (late-October/early-November) and stop consuming the fish before starting to eat it again after offering another pair to Goddess Saraswati in Saraswati Puja (end-January/early-February). This was a traditional conservation practice and made a lot of sense: the hilsa 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 hilsa (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 decline in the hilsa’s population.

Rising Demand And Spiralling Prices

Bengal’s yield of the hilsa was 80,000 tonnes in 2001 and this fell sharply to 35,000 tonnes in 2010. Last year, the yield was 20,000 tonnes. The peak demand (during the monsoon months between July and September) for the fish in Bengal was 150 tonnes a day when Bangladesh imposed the export ban in 2012. About 60 per cent of this requirement used to be met through imports from the neighbouring country.

But after the ban, supply fell and prices of the prized fish spiralled upwards.

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In 2010, a hilsa imported from Bangladesh and weighing about one kilogram would sell in Kolkata between Rs 1000 to Rs 1200 a kilo. For the larger variety (between 1.3 kg to 1.5 kg), the price used to be Rs 1500 per kg. And the most prized fish weighing above 1.5 kg would sell for Rs 1700 to Rs 1800 per kg.

The hilsa weighing above 2 kg would command a premium of above Rs 2000 per kg.  The price of the catch from the Hooghly-Bhagirathi used to be at least 20 per cent to 25 per cent lower than these prices. And the fish caught from the sea and brought in from the ports (Digha and Diamond Harbour) would cost even less.

Today, a hilsa weighing one kilogram and caught from the Hooghly-Bhagirathi costs more than Rs 1700 per kg. On special occasions, the price shoots up to over Rs 2000 per kg. Hilsa weighing anything from 1.2 kg to 1.5 kg, though extremely rare, sells for nothing less than Rs 2500 to Rs 2700 per kg. And hilsa weighing more than Rs 1.5 kg is simply not available even in the markets of South Kolkata from where the affluent procure their fish.

The smaller hilsa (weighing between 600 to 750 grams) sells for Rs 650 to Rs 800 per kg. And thanks to demand far outstripping supply, the hilsa caught from the sea is passed off as river fish and commands the same price.

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Bangladesh’s Best Practices

The prized adult hilsa (weighing over 1.5 kg) is available aplenty in Bangladesh’s Padma-Meghna river system. That is because Bangladesh heeded the early warning signs (of dwindling hilsa catch) and put in place a lot of conservation rules by the turn of this century.

Bangladesh has designated five breeding zones for the hilsa in the Padma-Meghna river system, where fishing is strictly prohibited. Netting hilsa less than 10 inches in length is strictly prohibited and violators are stiffly penalised and even jailed.

Bangladesh has put in place a robust social security net for fishermen who have faced financial loss due to these restrictions. They have been provided access to easy credit for alternative livelihoods and have been provided training in other skills.

Restrictions have also been put in place on deep sea fishing during certain periods and on using nets of certain specifications so that the khoka ilish are not caught. And all these rules and regulations are strictly enforced in that country. As a result, Bangladesh’s yield of the hilsa has been rising 8 per cent to 10 per cent year on year, on an average.

Thus, while the yield was an impressive 3.85 lakh tonnes in 2014, it went up to 4.3 lakh tonnes in 2018. Consequently, the fish is also reasonably priced in Bangladesh, and the hilsa weighing 1.8-2 kg is not only easily available but priced at Bangladeshi Taka 800-900 per kg (100 Bangladeshi Taka = 81.08 Indian Rupees).

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Bengal, incidentally, also has similar rules and regulations in place. But, such is the malaise with Bengal, these rules and regulations are never enforced.

Law enforcers in Bengal are corrupt and can do little to enforce these regulations under pressure from populist ruling politicians, who also get ‘cut money’ from fishermen violating the regulations. Many lower and mid-level politicians of the ruling Trinamool are themselves involved in flouting bans and restrictions on hilsa fishing.

Bengal’s schemes for compensating fishermen who would suffer losses due to restrictions on fishing hilsa have also remained mostly on paper or have suffered due to endemic corruption in the state.

Smuggling Hilsa And Piracy

The easy availability of hilsa in Bangladesh and its acute scarcity in Bengal has led to smuggling of the fish from the neighbouring country. However, due to strict vigilance along the international border, only a small quantity of the prized ilish from Padma-Meghna makes it into Bengal. The little quantity that is smuggled in fetches a premium in Kolkata’s markets and is sold, like drugs, very surreptitiously and only to known customers or through strong references by fish traders in Kolkata.

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Bangladeshi fishermen have also been facing the grave threat of river piracy. River pirates keep a close watch on Bangladeshi fishing vessels in the Padma-Meghna rivers and their large estuary and once a vessel nets a large haul of hilsa, it is seized by the river pirates who hijack the vessel along with the fishermen and crew.

These vessels are taken to the Sunderbans, where it is easy to evade the river police due to the countless creeks and canals where surveillance is next to impossible. The catch is then unloaded into smaller boats which enter the Indian side of the Sunderbans through the creeks and canals and the catch then finds its way to the markets in Kolkata. But, again, due to intensification of vigilance in the Sunderbans by the BSF, such illegal activities have become risky.

The hilsa smuggled in from Bangladesh is sold for more than Rs 2500 per kg for the fish weighing about 1.5 kg. Those weighing more (1.6 - 1.8 kg) are sold for between Rs 2600 and Rs 2800 per kg and any hilsa weighing more than 2 kg is sold for Rs 3000 to Rs 3200 a kg. But they are rarely available, and only to those with the proper connections.

Hilsa, Teesta And Quid Pro Quo

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Mamata Banerjee has been facing considerable pressure from Bengalis angry with the unavailability of the prized hilsa from Padma-Meghna and rising prices as well as sharply dwindling supplies of the domestic hilsa. She had, in the past, written to the Ministry of External Affairs to take up the issue with Bangladesh and influence Dhaka to lift the ban on the export of hilsa. But Dhaka has been steadfast on its stated quid pro quo: give us Teesta waters and take our hilsa.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told Mamata Banerjee this in as many words during a meeting between the two of them in February 2015. Banerjee reportedly told Hasina that Bengalis in Bengal were not getting any of the delectable hilsa from Bangladesh. Hasina replied that more water in Bangladesh’s rivers would yield more hilsa and then the fish could be exported to Bengal.

What Hasina meant was that if Mamata reversed her opposition to the Teesta water sharing deal, there would be more water in the Padma (where the Teesta flows into) and, thus, the population of the fish in the river would also increase. That would enable Bangladesh to export the fish to Bengal. Mamata got the hint and told Hasina that Bangladesh would definitely get its fair share of water from Teesta.

However little happened afterwards and Mamata Banerjee continued with her opposition to sharing more waters of the Teesta with Bangladesh. Most of the waters of the Teesta are diverted into irrigation canals through a barrage on the river on the Indian side before it enters Bangladesh. The Bengal Chief Minister has been arguing that the flow of water in the Teesta has gone down due to the many dams that have been constructed over the river in Sikkim and diversion of water from the Teesta to generate hydro-electricity in that state.

The Teesta originates in Sikkim and flows into Bengal. Banerjee maintains that sharing more water with Bangladesh would deprive farmers in North Bengal who are critically dependant on the water from the river to irrigate their farmlands for their winter crops.

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In the lean season (December to March), the volume of water in the Teesta dwindles to just about 1000 cusecs, down from the usual 5000 cusecs and more, as it enters Bangladesh. The Teesta in Bangladesh is thus heavily silted and the meagre flow of water in the river has severely affected farming in the areas in Bangladesh that used to be irrigated by the waters of the Teesta.

This has caused considerable disquiet in Bangladesh. But Banerjee maintains that there is not enough water in the Teesta in the lean season to share with Bangladesh and she cannot deprive farmers of her own state to please Dhaka.

In May 2016, a day before Mamata Banerjee was to be sworn in her second term as the Bengal chief minister, a congratulatory gift of 20 kg of hilsa from Sheikh Hasina reached Banerjee’s Kalighat residence. An overjoyed Banerjee took it as a hint that Dhaka would lift its ban on export of the fish to Bengal. She (Banerjee) even told her senior colleagues that her second term would thus start on an auspicious note with the prized ilish from Bangladesh being available aplenty in Bengal very soon.

But that was not to be, and Banerjee ultimately realised that the gift was more of a teaser and a reminder of what the people of Bengal were missing due to her (Banerjee’s) opposition to a fair water-sharing deal with Bangladesh.

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Hasina provided another such reminder to Banerjee during her state visit to India in April 2017. Banerjee, who was invited by Prime Minister Modi to a banquet hosted in honour of Hasina at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, was gifted a huge hilsa (weighing over 2 kg) and sweets from Bangladesh by Hasina. The Bangladesh Prime Minister had brought along sizeable quantity of hilsa with her and gifted a large portion of them to the then president Pranab Mukherjee, who is known to be partial to the fish like all true-blue Bengalis.

Continuing Despair In Bengal

Come monsoons, and the attention of all Bengalis turn to their favourite ilish. The incessant rains revive memories among West Bengal’s Bengalis of the delectable ilish from Padma-Meghna in Bangladesh that they have not tasted all these years. And that leads to rounds of extended and angry bouts of debates, discussions, social media posts and pleas to the powers-that-be to get ilish from Bangladesh.

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So it was with the advent of the monsoons this year too. The non-availability of hilsa from Bangladesh was raised on the floor of the state Assembly earlier this week by Trinamool MLA, Rahima Mondal. Many legislators, cutting across party lines, regretted the non-availability of the fish from Bangladesh and, outside the legislative chamber, some even sang paeans to the fish.

That prompted Mamata Banerjee to say that she would have shared the waters of Teesta with Bangladesh if she could. “They (Bangladesh) stopped sending hilsa when Teesta water sharing deal was not finalised. They were hurt. But Teesta is drying up. If we share its water, people of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri (North Bengal) will suffer and farmers will not be able to cultivate their lands,” she told the assembly.

Thus, with Banerjee sealing all chances of sharing any more waters of the Teesta with Bangladesh, it seems Bengalis in Bengal will have to live without the mouth-watering and prized ilish from Bangladesh. The very fortunate with deep pockets and ‘connections’ will have to depend on smugglers and pirates to get their supply of the fish from across the border. The rest will have to make do with the less tastier and smaller hilsa from Bengal’s own rivers and, worse still, on supplies of the fish from Mumbai and from Myanmar.

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Banerjee Offers A Solution But It’s Not Good Enough

The Chief Minister held out a ray of hope to distressed legislators and hilsa-deprived Bengalis on the floor of the assembly. She said that her government had set up a hilsa research institute (Hilsa Conservation & Research Center) at Diamond Harbour three years ago. “If research is successful, we will be able to supply hilsa to the whole world,” Mamata said in her usual bombastic and exaggerated style.

But that, say hilsa experts, is a lot of balderdash.

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The Hilsa Conservation & Research Center (HCRC) in Diamond Harbour has been researching the possibility of cultivating the hilsa in large ponds with induced salinity. Nofima, a Norwegian institute engaged in aquaculture, has been roped into the research. The experts at the HCRC say that Nofima has been successful in cultivating salmon in ponds and rivers and its expertise would be made available to the researchers at HCRC.

HCRC has been trying to breed the hilsa in six large water-bodies and claims that it has met with success. Phytoplanktons that the fish feed on have been introduced in the water-bodies. Researchers say that they have met with success in imitating the natural conditions of the hilsa’s habitat in these water-bodies.

Gourmets and ilish experts, however, scoff at the idea of cultivating the hilsa in ponds with induced salinity. There is a stark difference between the real and the artificial, they assert. Hilsa cultivated in ponds will never taste the same as the ones that grow in the sea, migrate upstream, spawn, lose a lot of their acquired salinity due to their stay in freshwater, feed on phytoplanktons for a few months to acquire their distinct taste, before they are caught and cooked in at least 50 different ways perfected by Bengalis (mostly East Bengalis or ‘Bangals’ but that is the subject of a contentious debate).

Foodie Shreyoshi Sengupta, who holds quite extreme views on ilish like most hilsa-lovers (she abhors the idea of a ‘deboned’ hilsa and holds that anyone who cannot take a bite of the fish with its countless small bones and separate the bones from the flesh with deft and practised maneuverings of the tongue should be debarred from even touching the fish ever) says that cultivating the ilish in a pond is nothing short of sacrilegious.

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So what does that leave ilish-loving Bengalis of Bengal with? The prospect of being condemned to eating (not savouring) the inferior ilish of Hooghly-Bhagirathi that is destined to extinction in a couple of decades, and (God forbid) the artificial ilish that Mamata Banerjee is keen on promoting.

They have only themselves, and Didi, to blame for their sorry plight.

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