Sky-high prices are keeping it out of reach of the common man

Although the monsoon has hit the State, it still hasn’t brought in its usual and most sought-after companion — Hilsa fish (Tenualosa ilisha). As the clamour for the fish grows across the State, traders are forced to sell Bengalis’ favourite fish in smaller quantities.

“Hilsa fish lay their eggs in sweet waters of estuaries by swimming away from saline water. The fish should have come up by now, but we still have hope as the monsoon has just entered the State,” chairman of the Forum of Traders Organisation (West Bengal) Rabindranath Koley said.

While the delicate fish is not totally absent from the market, the sky-high prices are keeping it out of reach of the common man.

“Due to limited availability, fish-sellers are not selling by the kilo. The average price of the fish has gone up to Rs. 800-900 per 900 grams. Many sellers are asking for Rs. 1,100 to 1,200 for a kilo,” said secretary of the Fish Importer’s Association Syed Anwar Maqsood.

Hilsa, caught in the river Padma in Bangladesh, is considered to be of superior quality than the ones caught locally in the Ganga. However, ever since Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to share the Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the neighbouring country has imposed a ban on export of the silver-scaled fish.

“Unless, the countries reach some sort of agreement on the Teesta issue, our business will be difficult. Right now, the fish that is available in the market is a mix of the ones caught locally at Diamond Harbour and the ones imported from Myanmar,” Mr. Maqsood said.

Since Bangladesh blocked its access, importers have started relying on Myanmar for their catch, although it forces them to hike the rates.

“We have to wait for almost two months for the fish to arrive here. We have to pay additional charges for cold storage. Packaging also costs more. All that forces us to increase the prices,” Mr. Maqsood said, adding that prices were a comparably lower when Hilsa from the Padma was available.

Trying to satiate Bengalis’ demand for the fish, sellers make do with khoka ilish (baby Hilsa). Although the sale of khoka ilish is banned by the State government, sellers continue to do so brazenly, with the State’s Fisheries Department’s public awareness campaigns serving no purpose.

“The awareness programmes need to be strong at places where khoka ilish is caught. Once it is caught and there in the market for sale, the programmes are useless. Regular raids are carried out and people are charged, only to be repeated the following year, Mr. Koley said.

With the Hilsa fast disappearing from the Bengalis’ plates, traders are desperately looking to Bangladesh for help.

“We heard that the Teesta pact was discussed when [External Affairs Minister] Sushma Swaraj visited Bangladesh recently, but no solution came out of it. Unless the Ministers reach an agreement, the situation will remain the same,” Mr. Maqsood said.

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