Fish diplomacy: If ‘puja’ comes to Bengal, can Hilsa be far behind…

Last year too Bangladesh had made a similar concession ahead of Durga Puja sending 500 tonnes Hilsa

Hilsa, Ilish, fish
Bangladesh accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world’s Hilsa production | Photo: iStock

In a relishing twist to the Hilsa diplomacy, the season’s first consignment of the pricey fish reached West Bengal from Bangladesh on Monday evening — a pre-Puja gift from the neighbour. Hilsa lovers on this side of the border can now expect the delicacy to return to Bengali platter in a day or two.

Bangladesh had imposed a ban on export of Hilsa to West Bengal in 2012, in retaliation to the state government’s opposition to Teesta water sharing deal, depriving the Bengalis in India of their favourite seasonal delicacy.

The Hilsa pang of her citizens had made Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reach out to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2015 and seek lifting of the ban. Politely refusing the request, Hasina had told Mamata that the fish would flow into West Bengal once Teesta river water started to flow adequately into Bangladesh.

“Can there be fish without water,” she had reportedly told West Bengal chief minister in a lighter vein, triggering in a way the age-old Bangaal-Ghoti rivalry that spiced up the cultural flavour of Bengal.

For the uninitiated, the Bangaals are people with their ancestral roots in erstwhile East Bengal, whose ancestors migrated to the western part of the Bengal before or after 1947 partition, while the Ghotis are the original inhabitants of the present state of West Bengal.

The Bangaals generally associate themselves with Hilsa fish and are invariably supporters of East Bengal football. The Ghotis will celebrate a Mohun Bagan victory devouring Jumbo Prawns (Chingri in Bengali) cooked in coconut.

As Hilsa waded into diplomacy, it started vanishing from the platter of the average Bengali, as short supply spiked prices beyond their reach. This year particularly, there has been a stiff supply-demand gap as the state’s own Hilsa haul dipped to a ’25 year low’, according to fishermen and fish traders.

Digha Fishermen’s Association secretary Shyamsundar Das said in July the catch was virtually nil and even in August and September so far the catch was not promising enough.

On an average, 20,000-25,000 tonnes of Hilsa are netted from the estuaries in the state, but this monsoon, the prime season for the catch, the haul was less than 200 tonnes, the state fisheries department sources said.

In contrast, Bangladesh registered a phenomenal rise in Hilsa production this year leading to a glut in that country, promoting illicit cross border trade of the fish.  India’s Border Security Force (BSF) has seized around 2,800 kg of Bangladeshi Hilsa in the last seven months.

Bangladesh accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world’s Hilsa production. Moreover, the quality of the fish in the Padma river in Bangladesh is believed to be of better quality.

The price of Indian Hilsa swings between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,200 per kg in a Kolkata market whereas its Bangladeshi variant fetches anything between Rs 1,800 to Rs 2,200 per kg.

Fish traders say the price will go down as the Hilsa from Bangladesh starts arriving in the market.

The Bangladesh government on September 10 temporarily lifted the ban in view of Durga Puja, allowing export of 1,450 metric tonnes of Hilsa to West Bengal, the largest consignment of the highly sought-after, silvery trans-boundary fish to cross the border since 2011.

Last year too Bangladesh had made a similar concession ahead of the Durga Puja sending 500 tonnes of the fish.

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