Oh for some Bangladeshi hilsa!

By Soudhriti Bhabani, IANS

Kolkata : The lip-smacking hilsa of Bangladesh is missing from the Indian platter this season, depriving food lovers – especially Bengalis – of a favourite delicacy.

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The decision of the Bangladesh government to ban hilsa export to India for six months has also affected several fish merchants in India who are suddenly faced with the collapse of a flourishing trade.

The ban was apparently imposed as the price of the fish had suddenly shot up in the Bangladesh market. Priced at taka 1,200 per kg (Rs.720 approximately) there, it was available in India at Rs.300-350 per kg.

"The huge difference in pricing triggered a furore in Bangladesh. Several reports in the media criticised the discrepancy in the price of hilsa, forcing the Bangladesh government to stop its export," Shaikh Qamrul Hasan, first secretary (commercial) in the Bangladesh deputy high commission in Kolkata, told IANS.

"There is a major crisis in the hilsa trade in Bangladesh and the ban on the export is aimed at finding out why the fish is priced higher in our country when it is available at much cheaper rates in India even after clearing the customs duty," he said.

But none of this reasoning holds for the tongue that drools for "Padmar ilish", as hilsa from the Padma river of Bangladesh is called by Bengalis.

About 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of hilsa used to come to India every year from Bangladesh between May and August. More than 80 percent of the hilsa consumed in West Bengal is imported from Bangladesh.

Though hilsa festivals have already begun in several city restaurants here, the delectable Bangladesh variety is missing from the menu.

"Restaurants have not suffered that much because hilsas from Kolaghat and Diamond Harbour are available in the market. Since the supply of hilsa has been stopped by Bangladesh, its price has shot up in the market," said Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta of Kewpies, a city restaurant.

She said the ban has forced restaurant owners to buy hilsa at a much higher price from the local market.

"As long as customers can afford the price, we don't have a problem. But it's true Bengalis have a sentimental attachment to hilsa from the Padma," Dasgupta said.

Hilsa is the fourth largest export item of Bangladesh after chemical fertilisers, raw jute and jute products. On an average, Bangladesh exports hilsa worth $15 billion to India every year. This apart, Bangladeshi hilsa also gets exported to London, United States and Saudi Arabia.

Speaking on the recent ban on the hilsa trade, West Bengal Fisheries Minister Kiranmoy Nanda said the state government had no role to play in it. The centre has already taken up the matter and will take a final decision on resuming the trade link, he said.

"We have already informed the union agriculture and commerce ministry to look into the matter. Talks are on at the bilateral ministry level between India and Bangladesh," Nanda told IANS.

He also pointed out that since Bangladesh's hilsa was only allowed to enter India through a single land port – the Petrapole border – over 300,000 fish merchants, who were directly involved in the trade, have been affected in the bordering districts.

The Howrah Wholesale Fish Market Association's president Ashok Saw said the fish market had been only partially affected by the export ban as hilsas from Kolaghat, Namkhana, Kakdwip and Diamond Harbour are readily available here.