A fish moves west

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

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Sunday 31 October 2010

A fish moves west

fishAminul 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.

yusufIn 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.

samaad“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.”

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