Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strict vegetarian, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and the Bangladeshi leadership could be soon picking some festering fish bones, an abiding topic that unites and divides Bengalis on both sides of the border.
Exchange of border enclaves, terrorism and Teesta water sharing could be more pressing issues on the table. But when Modi and Banerjee visit Dhaka on a two-day bilateral tour from June 6, the ban on Bangladeshi hilsa or Ilish exports to India, a fish which is coveted by almost all Bengalis irrespective of age and income, is likely to be discussed, too.
In 2012, the Sheikh Hasina government banned the export of hilsa to India to ensure people of Bangladesh are not deprived of the delicacy.
Days before the visit, a silent war has already broken out over hilsa between fishermen of Bengal, who catch the fish in the Bay of Bengal, the Hooghly river and its tributaries, and importers pushing for the Bangladeshi ban to be lifted.
The fishermen’s association wants the ban to stay, fearing a price slump post-relaxation.
“We request the Prime Minister and our chief minister to maintain status quo on the hilsa ban. Let the curbs remain for the sake of native fishermen and their families. If it is relaxed, the price of our catch will nosedive,” said Bijon Maity, secretary of the Kakdwip Fishermen’s Association.
Jaikrishna Haldar, a former MLA and leader of the United Progressive Fisherman Association, agreed. “We will write to the Prime Minister and the chief minister,” he said.
Their stand contradicts the oft-repeated plea during bilateral meetings, where the Indian side requests their Bangladeshi counterparts to relax the hilsa ban - a line that matches the importers’ demand.
“On May 29, we have written to both the prime minister and chief minister, urging them to ask Dhaka to lift the ban,” said Syed Anwar Maqsud, secretary of the West Bengal Fish Importers’ Association.
“When Banerjee visited Bangladesh last February she raised the issue, but Dhaka paid no heed. What the fishermen are saying is nonsense. The hilsa catch in our waters is miserable. Bangladeshi hilsa is in high demand in our markets,” he added.
Before the ban, over 6,000 tonnes of Hilsa used to come from Bangladesh during the July-December peak season. Now, importers get the fish – a much inferior variety – from Myanmar, around 800 tonnes annually.
Some quantity of hilsa, caught in the Padma river of Bangladesh and considered the most delicious, sneaks through the porous border. These are lapped up at a premium in Kolkata markets — Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a kilo.
The importers argue that over 50% of the entire hilsa catch in the region is from Bangladesh and the Indian fishermen manage to net only 15% of the pie. “Local fishermen can’t expect to keep the markets hungry if they supply a mere fraction,” Maqsud said.
But he agreed that the price of the local catch would fall once the Bangladesh ban was lifted. “The consumers will get better fish and the local variety, which is smaller in size, will become cheaper. Isn’t that what we all want?” he asked.