Ten years ago Bangladesh’s rivers were deeper and hilsa plentiful. Silting, dams and pollution pushed the fisher into deep ocean leading to shortage and a ban on export to India in 2006. The Bangladesh fish wholesaler’s loss became Gujarat’s gain as increasingly hilsa from the Tapti and the Narmada feed the Kolkata market. Though people say the Gujarat hilsa tastes bland in comparison, the delectable fish from the Padma costs at least 500 rupees more. Kaushik Das Gupta travelled to Bangladesh to report on the hilsa’s shifting homebase
A fish moves west
Aminul Islam looked to the sky and in an instant brought his eyes to rest on a small mound of hilsa.
He picked up a silver-scaled fish, patted its underbelly that had a streak of pink running across it, and let out a cry drowning the scraping of crates, the bellow of ferry launches and the honking of trucks. “Oshto hajaar (eight thousand),” he shouted. Somebody from the crowd nearby roared: “Oshto hajaar panchsho (eight thousand five hundred).” Then, “Eight thousand five hundred, one, two, three,” Islam continued, stopping when someone from the crowd yelled, “Nine thousand.” The auction went on for about 15 minutes; at Taka (Tk) 17,000 (Rs 12,000) for a maun (about 40 kg) the bidders ran out of steam.
Islam wiped his forehead and again looked at the sky. “The ilish (hilsa) business has not been good this year. It’s September and this is the first good auction I have had,” he said watching porters pick up the fish from the muddy floors of the Barisal wholesale fish market and loading them onto an ice-laden truck.
Some 320 km south of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, Barisal is a major port of call for hilsa. On a good day 400-500 kg of hilsa is loaded onto trucks, eventually to whet appetites in different parts of Bangladesh— sometimes India. “Things were much better 10 years or even five years ago,” said Mohammed Yusuf Sikder, who heads Barisal Fish Exporters’ Association. A small pile of hilsa at his open-fronted shop at the wholesale market indicated Sikder had seen better days. “Till 2005, at least 400 kg of fish would leave Barisal every day for India. During Durga Puja, business was even more brisk. It’s just a month to the pujas. We have not exported any fish to India,” he rued.
In 2006, pressured by hilsa shortage in the country, Bangladesh imposed a ban on exports to India. The ban was lifted in 2008 under the South Asian Preferential Treaty Agreement. But the Bangladesh government decided to put a price to the country’s prized catch. It fixed the minimum price of hilsa weighing between 600 gm and one kg at US $6 per kg, that between a kg to 1.5 kg at US $8 and that weighing over 1.5 kg at US $12. “Most Indian importers who prefer the bigger variety do not want to buy fish at that price. Things were much better in 2005 when we sold hilsa at US $2-5,” Sikder explained adding that he has barely exported any hilsa this year.
“We have asked the government to bring down the prices to the 2005 level. The government gives incentives to shrimp exporters, we should get some as well,” Islam said hollering for tea and waving away fishermen asking for money.
Kolkata, Gujarat and Mumbai
In Kolkata, Syed Anwar Maqsood, secretary of the West Bengal Fish Importer’s Association, talked of changing trends. “We still get 60-70 per cent of our ilish from Bangladesh, but things are changing,” he said. About 10 years ago, more than 80 per cent of hilsa came from across the border. But Bangladeshi hilsa has become expensive. “Now close to 30 per cent of hilsa in Kolkata comes from Bharuch and other places in Gujarat,” Maqsood explained.
For Shaukat Aziz who runs Chand International, a firm in Mumbai that exports fish to Kolkata, this means boom time. “Hilsa from the Tapti river at Bharuch sells between Rs 300 and Rs 400 per kg in Kolkata markets. Fish from the Narmada is priced about the same,” he said. Hilsa was not a major item on Chand’s list till even five years ago. “Our turnover from hilsa has doubled in the last three or four years,” he said.
It’s a development that Maqsood does not quite like. The Gujarat hilsa tastes bland, compared to the plump and oily Bangladeshi variety. But then the businessman takes over the fish connoisseur. “We have to forgo the sweet river hilsa from Bangladesh. Prices of that variety have skyrocketed to Rs 800- Rs 2,000 a kg. The fish importer believes in the next five years hilsa from Gujarat will overtake the Bangladeshi variety.
Moneylenders and pirates
Maqsood and Ajit Das Montu, who heads the Bangladeshi Fish Exporter’s Association, believe that the influx of cheap hilsa from Gujarat could affect the lives of nearly a million people in India and Bangladesh who depend on the fish trade. It’s a sentiment that Islam appreciates. The clamour for money at his shop in Barisal had got louder. “Agreed, you lend us money. But don’t take us for granted,” said one fisherman. “At least give us the Tk 8,000,” shouted another.
Shankarlal Das, Barisal correspondent of Bangladesh’s leading Bengali daily Prathom Alo, tried explaining the cacophony. “Most fishermen have little say in the prices. It’s moneylenders like Islam who rule the roost,” he said. Das, who has been writing on hilsa for five years, said when fisherfolk borrow money, they commit their catch to the moneylender at prices he sets. “This credit is called dadan. Islam’s debtors had committed to selling the catch to him for Tk 8,000 (Rs 5,000) a maun—the starting price of the auction,” he explained.
“Yes, that’s my business. I give them money when they need it the most. They need money to make nets, repair boats and they have medical costs,” Islam explained grimacing as a trawler drew into Barisal almost empty. The scowl turned into a sympathetic glance once Abdur Samaad, the trawler’s leading boatman said they had escaped a jalodashyu (pirate).
Ghulam Mohammed Naskar, another office bearer of the Barisal Fish Exporter’s Association, explained, “The catch in Bangladesh’s rivers is fast depleting. Fishers have to plumb the deep ocean for a catch. It’s a perilous venture. Boats and their catch are often held hostage by gangs of pirates.” Samaad said the ransom could range between Tk 50,000 and Tk 3 lakh. He has seen abduction at close quarters. In 2008, Faqir Das, his fellow boatman and neighbour in Mohipur, around 30 km from Barisal, was abducted. “He was blindfolded and taken to a forest, probably in the Sunderbans. Fisher people pooled money, organised dadan from the moneylender and managed to pay the Tk I lakh (Rs 63,000) ransom.
The pirates treated Das well and even gave him a certificate on a betel leaf, saying he had paid the ransom. But they did not return the catch,” Samaad said.
The story seemed familiar to Shankarlal Das. Trawlers with such illicit catch sneak into the ocean borders with India and offload their fish into Indian vessels. The contraband fish then makes its way to Diamond Harbour, about 50 km from Kolkata, Das elaborated. A Bangladesh fisheries department official who did not want to be named said such traffic got a spurt after the export restrictions. But added, “If the export curbs were not in place, people in Bangladesh would not get any ilish. There are too many Indians who want it.”
Money transactions of the illicit trade are done through hawala networks in Kolkata, Dhaka and Chittagong, Das said, explaining the operation goes on under the supervision of representatives of the big fish merchants and investors. Prathom Alo’s correspondent believes, “Patrol teams of Bangladesh Navy and Coast Guards lack speedy vessels; very often they can’t tell a fishing trawler from that of smugglers and pirates.”
For Naskar, lax patrolling is just one aspect of the problem. “Ten years ago, Bangladesh’s rivers were plentiful. We did not need to go deep ocean for fish.” Samaad added, “When I was young, the rivers were deeper and there were more fish. It’s the silting you see.”
At Chandpur, about 150 km south of Dhaka, Anisur Rahman has a scientific explanation for the predicament of fisher people like Samaad.
Currently senior scientific officer at Bangladesh’s Fish Research Institute, Rahman explained, “In scientific parlance, the hilsa is an anadromous fish. It lives most of its lives in the sea but around the monsoon, when it is time to spawn, the hilsa swims against the tide and goes back to the river where its mother had given birth to it.” He added that the most delectable ones are those that go the farthest upriver. “But there is barely any hilsa left in the rivers,” Rahman said echoing the fishers of Barisal.
The scientist, who has been studying the movement pattern of the silvery fish for more than 20 years, said, “Earlier the hilsa would move from the Bay of Bengal to Bangladesh’s rivers, the Padma and the Meghna, for spawning. It would also take the western route to the Ganga. But Bangladesh’s rivers were known to be more abundant. Now there is more hilsa in the west, in areas bordering Indian waters,” Rahman said explaining why Bangladeshi fishermen have to go deep ocean. Dubo chars (submerged sand islands) have increased in the ocean near Bangladesh in the past ten years. The hilsa, which prefers unhindered migration, has swum away from waters under Bangladeshi control, Rahman said, adding there is little research on the proliferation of such submerged islands.
G C Halder, his colleague at the Bangladesh Fish Research Institute, cites a host of reasons for the declining catch. The Padma river, the source of the delectable hilsa, is getting drier by the year. When the Farakka Barrage was commissioned in northern Bengal in 1975, the water flow to the Padma was 65,000-70,000 cusecs during the dry season, April-July. An India-Bangladesh water treaty ensured a supply of more than 50,000 cusecs till the late 1980s. But the treaty was not renewed after 1988 and by the late 1990s the water flow to the Padma fell to around 30,000 cusecs during the dry season, Halder said citing documents of Bangladesh’s water department. That sounded the death knell of the sweet water hilsa.
The barrage gets bad press from Indian scientists as well. Kolkata-based ecologist Parimal Ray is one of them. He does not agree with Rahman’s contention that there is more fish in Ganga in India, because the Farakka restricts its movement. Ray believes a proper fish pass could have made hilsa migration easy through the barrage. But today the area just below the barrage has become a point of indiscriminate fishing. “This never existed before the construction of Farakka. More than a thousand fishing boats are sometimes seen catching hilsa just below the barrage because it acts as an obstacle against the fish’s migration,” Ray wrote in his book, Ecological Imbalance of the Ganga River; its impact on Aquaculture. Before the barrage was constructed, the fish would swim upstream as far as Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Ray said.
In Bangladesh, Halder attributes the decline in hilsa numbers to the pollution in the Halda in Chittagong and rivers in Sylhet district. “Not just the hilsa. Rivers in Chittagong once boasted more than 70 fish varieties. Pollution by industries and dams restricting water flow mean there are hardly 10 varieties left,” his colleague Rahman said.
Rahman’s research led the Bangladesh government to impose a ban on jatka (juveniles) fishing between November and March. “In 2002, we realised Bangladesh could increase hilsa production by nearly 30,000 tonnes if fishermen stopped catching jatka,” he said. But the scientist refuses to take much credit for the idea. The suggestion was rooted in tradition, he explained. For Bengalis, the hilsa season began around March and ended in October. A theory has it that Bengalis strapped the ilish season with religion to prevent overfishing. “In the past, we never had ilish between Lakshmi Puja (mid- to end- October) and Saraswati Puja (early- to mid-February). The last ilish would be consumed after a pair of the fish was offered to the goddess on Lakshmi Puja. This bar timed with the period when juveniles swam back to the the sea from the river. It allowed the fish to grow large and procreate. Both Hindus and Muslims adhered to this abstention,” Rahman said.
Ratan Dutta, joint director at Bangladesh’s fisheries directorate, believes fishers in Bangladesh gave up on the tradition in the mid-1990s. “In mid-1990s, there was an influx of fine fishing nets from Thailand. Fish net manufacturers took to nets with a mesh of 1.5-2 inches (38-51 mm) with alacrity. They were perfect to catch juveniles; even children could use them. We gave a local name for the nets, current jaal. Factories mushroomed in Dhaka’s outskirts,” Dutta said.
The factories were banned in 1999 but they continue with impunity, the fisheries official said. “They are patronised by powerful people,” Syeda Rizwana of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association said. Rahman though believes that the ban on jatka fishing is working. The catch has increased by nearly 6,000 tonnes. But he also said that fishermen net 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of jatka a year. Vendors carrying basketfuls of wan and thin ilish at Dhaka’s Karawan Fish Market prove him right. The fish sells for Tk 150.
Bans in West Bengal
Juvenile hilsa is good business across the border as well: people in West Bengal call it khoka ilish. In 2006, the state’s government banned the catch of hilsa weighing less than 500 grammes. The state’s fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda claimed, “Our officials raid wholesale markets.” But an official of the department, who did not want to be named, said, “The khoka, priced at around Rs 250 a kg is the only ilish that common people can afford; that fuels illegal fishing. In 2006, the fisheries department decided that teams would raid markets at regular intervals but nothing came of it.”
Sarbani Basu, a Kolkata school teacher, does not mind the khoka ilish. “It tastes sweeter than Gujarat ilish.” Her sister, Jayanti, though gets nostalgic about the days when Bangladeshi hilsa was a feature of a monsoon day meal.
In Bangladesh, journalist Shankarlal Das recounts that hilsa could be had for a taka some 40 years ago. “During monsoons my father would come home dangling a hilsa from both hands. Mother would then take over.
The nigella seeds (kalaunji) would splutter in mustard oil, the fish make a crackling sound and very soon the house would be filled with appetising aromas. My mother insisted on saving this oil and using it later to make other dishes.”
The journalist was speaking of a region’s love affair with a fish that dates back centuries. Prakritapaingala, a prakrit text written some 600 hundred years ago, has a somewhat sombre description of this love affair that also tells something about gender roles. “Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, hilsa, fried leaves of the jute plant and some hot milk.”
Food writer Chitrita Banerjee believes, “The mystique of the hilsa can be understood in the context of a larger Bengal, which was split into two by the 1947 partition of India—West Bengal in India, and East Pakistan, which later became the country of Bangladesh.” For people in pre-Partition Bengal, River Padma was the geographical line dividing east and west. Over time, demographics reinforced this division, Muslims forming the majority in East Bengal and Hindus in the west. Cooking techniques and food preferences reflected religious and sub-regional differences. However, a common bond of culture and language persisted: rice and fish remained the ideal Bengali meal on both sides of the border, with hilsa evoking memories of pre-Partition days.
The fish featured in the bedtime stories parents told their children about the exploits of Gopal, the wise and witty jester at the court of King Krishnachandra—often regarded by Bengalis as their culture’s answer to Birbal. One of Gopal’s most famous accomplishments was buying a pair of hilsa and then walking all the way from the market to the king’s court without anybody talking about the fish in envious tone.
The boatman who brought the hilsa was celebrated in literature. In Manik Bandhyopadhyay’s classic, Padma Nadir Majhi—later made into a film by Goutam Ghose—the boatman comes home in the wee hours under a delicately clouded sky with the light from a solitary lantern illuminating the niche in the boat where lay hilsa he had caught with much effort.
After the influx of migrants from the eastern borders, a constant one-upmanship ensued between the two communities. This found expression in the two favourite pre-occupations of Bengalis: food and football. The expatriates swore by East Bengal club, while people from the west rooted for Mohun Bagan. An East Bengal victory over Mohun Bagan would mean the smell of hilsa in mustard oil would hang in the air for several days in Kolkata’s neighbourhoods. A win for Mohun Bagan meant a treat of prawn delicacies.
Banerjee writes that Bengali’s could spend several hours of adda or heated discussions about which hilsa was superior— the hilsa from the Ganga or the one from across the rivers in the Padma. “The hilsa from the Padma is succulent and sweet. The one from the Ganga would do, but only on a lean day,” Sarbani Basu recounted her mother-in-law, originally from East Pakistan, as saying. Basu believes that the Padma hilsa is plumper and oilier, but the leaner Ganga hilsa flakes off easily.
But these are minor differences. The rui might have ceremonial significance, the bhetki might be the stuff of haute parties, but hilsa evokes memories of friendly banter, auspicious days and joyful family meals. “A ‘true Bengali’ is said to be one who takes in a mouthful of hilsa and then sort out the bones from the flesh,” Basu said.
On auspicious days like the Saraswati Puja, many Hindu Bengali families buy a pair of hilsa (joda ilish). Banerjee believes, “hilsa is strongly linked to the Bengalis’ seasonal appreciation of food.” The first monsoon rains which stirs all creatures back to life after the searing summer heat is often celebrated with khichuri—rice and dal cooked together, flavoured with ghee, ginger, and whole garam masala, and freshly caught hilsa. Bengalis have cemented the association of hilsa with monsoon by naming the petite droplets, which follow the torrential rains, as ilishey guri—hilsa droplets.
“The hilsa was an item with which my mother sometimes constructed an entire meal,” Banerjee writes in her book, Food and Life in Bengal. “We started with a few pieces of fried fish and the roe. Then plain rice was enlivened by pouring over it the oil in which these had been fried—the bare teaspoon of mustard oil in the pan usually increasing to half a cup with the rendered fat from the fish. The head came next, fried, broken up into pieces, and combined with the leaves and stems of a green called pui. The bulk of the fish was divided into two portions, one cooked with a ground mustard paste, its pungency merging into that of the mustard oil, the other (bonier portions of the back) made either into a jhal with hot red chili paste, or an ambal with tamarind pulp.”
There are variations in how people from the east and western parts of Bengal treat the hilsa. In parts of Bangladesh, hilsa roe with karamcha, a very sour berry, is an exquisite savoury. Onion is an anathema to people from the west, who cook the fish in mustard oil. The oil has a pungency that balances the strong hilsa odours, though in recent times Bengalis use other vegetable oils. But in Bangladesh, the fish is cooked with ghee, coconut milk and even sugar.
In its preparation, hilsa breaks all rules. Bengali Muslims who shudder at the thought of eating flesh that has blood throw all taboos to the wind when it comes to hilsa. Hindus, who also flinch at the thought of unwashed fish, are not keen on cleansing the hilsa of blood. The blood is said to make the fish tastier. “Bengalis of all religion will wash the fish only once,” Banerjee writes.
Once the heads and guts have been removed and the body scaled the hilsa is halved along the spine lengthwise. But the cut stops at about 5 inches above the tail where the body becomes too narrow. The tailpiece is set aside. The two longitudinal halves are cut usually into pieces an inch thick. The belly has large bones and the flesh has more oil, which makes it the more delectable portion. The back makes a good fry or tastes well in a stew with vegetables—the jhol.
With the ecology of the hilsa changing, the monsoon delicacy might be less frequent on the Bengali platter.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.