Nothing says monsoon in Bengal like a meal of khichudi (a rice and lentil mash) and fried hilsa fish. Of course, this doesn’t come cheap. Hilsa now retails for up to Rs 1,000 per kilogram in Kolkata’s markets, making your standard rainy day fare of Khichudi-hilsa something only the well-off can enjoy.
That’s where India’s ministry of commerce and industry comes in. As part of the India-Bangladesh Joint Working Group on Trade, India’s mandarins have been hard at work trying to convince their Bangladeshi colleagues to allow the export of Hilsa from their deltaic country. And it might be working.
The Dhaka Tribune reported on Sunday that the Bangladesh government is likely to allow hilsa export this year. Driven by falling fish production which, in turn, were pushing up prices, Dhaka had banned the export of Hilsa to India in 2012. Hilsa is the national fish of Bangladesh and considered to be a great delicacy in Bengali cuisine. Its export to India, which pushed up prices domestically, is therefore a delicate issue politically in Bangladesh. That Dhaka is now thinking of reversing the ban is one sign of just how close India-Bangladesh relations are at the moment.
Much loved across the Bengal, the largest and tastiest varieties of hilsa come from Bangladesh, found in its Padma-Meghna-Jamuna delta, the largest such natural feature in the world. The hilsa, lives most of its lives in the sea but spawns upriver during the monsoons, which is when it reaches Bengali dining tables.
Over the past three decades, though, hilsa production has seen a crisis, with overfishing and damming causing catches to nosedive. In West Bengal, the annual hilsa yield fell from 80,000 tonnes in 2001 to 20,000 tonnes in 2011. Much of this has to do with the Farakka Barrage dam on the Bhagirathi, a distributary of the Ganga. Before the dam’s construction, hilsa was available upstream right till Allahabad but now the fish has mostly disappeared west of Bengal.
Matters aren’t as bad in Bangladesh, yet, but the fish has seen a decline there too, again due to the Farakka Barrage. Water flow to the Padma fell from around 70,000 cusecs during the summer in 1975, the year the Farakka Barrage was commissioned, to 30,000 in the 1990s. This, combined with overfishing of juvenile fish and pollution, means that fish production has gone down in Bangladesh too.
The pressure on the silver fish saw India-Bangladesh foreign relations come into play. With falling fish numbers, Bangladesh resented India sucking up large amounts during the monsoons. Domestic pressure has resulted in bans being placed on and off, the most recent one being clamped down in 2012, resulting in an immediate price hike in Kolkata and scarcity of the prized large varieties of the fish.
India has, of course, been pro-active in trying to pressure Dhaka to reverse this ban. Managing the hilsa trade is an important part of the job of India’s High Commissioner to Dhaka. In 2015, hilsa also featured on the agenda as the heads of government of both Bengals met in Dhaka. As Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee conferred with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Hasina offered Banerjee a quid pro quo: West Bengal should agree to the Teesta water sharing agreement in return for resuming exports of hilsa.
While Banerjee didn’t take up Hasina on her offer, it seems that close India-Bangladesh ties might yet ensure that the citizens of her state get to enjoy some Bangladeshi ilish before the monsoons are over.