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In 1996, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had sent hilsa to former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu before the Ganges water-sharing treaty was signed. Now, 21 years later, as she’s back in Delhi hoping to seal an accord on the waters of the Teesta, the hilsa will be absent.
It won’t be on the menu for the lavish dinner that Rashtrapati Bhavan is laying out for her tomorrow. The reason: both Bangladesh and West Bengal have made legal provisions to combat the sale and purchase of hilsa that weighs less than 500 g (also called “juvenile hilsa”). During March and April, the hilsa catch is limited to juveniles — the survival of which is vital to that of the species in general.
Hours before Hasina’s flight landed in Delhi, a total of 32 head chefs were at work in the “family kitchen” at Rashtrapati Bhavan — which cooks only for the President and his close relatives — to ensure that this absence isn’t felt.
So on the menu, said sources: bhetki paturi (steamed bhetki fish, wrapped in banana leaves); chingri macher malaikari (prawn curry with coconut); and chital macher muitthya (fish dumplings in gravy).
Hasina’s gift of hilsa to Jyoti Basu in 1996 was only the beginning in what has since been referred to as hilsa diplomacy.
In 2010, Hasina brought with her hilsa, along with other gifts for Mamata Banerjee, the Railways Minister at the time. In 2013, when Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh as President, Sheikh Hasina had famously laid out a five-course meal of fish, including, of course, the hilsa. Then again, in 2016, Hasina sent 20 kg of hilsa to Banerjee ahead of her oath-taking ceremony.
Of late, however, hilsa diplomacy has come with hilsa responsibility as well. With the hilsa population dropping sharply, Bangladesh is the only country where the fish’s numbers have gone up since 2015-16 thanks to its conservation effort. But it wasn’t until 2002 that Bangladesh woke up and in 2004, Dhaka banned the catch of brood hilsa (the juvenile fish) from November to June while also banning the gill net — a net with a narrow mesh which ended up trapping juvenile hilsa.
In comparison, conservation efforts have been less pronounced in West Bengal. It wasn’t until 2013 that a specific notification was brought in by the West Bengal government to control overfishing and conserve the hilsa population while also prohibiting use of the gill net.
The government also declared five hilsa sanctuaries on the Hooghly river from Farakka to Sagar, covering a stretch of 250 km, where fishing has been banned between June-August and October-December.
More recently, the state government is looking at a proposal to bring about provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the CrPC to arrest anyone buying and selling juvenile hilsa.
The hilsa lives in seas and estuaries but travels upriver to spawn and this species has constantly been threatened due to over-fishing and pollution. Schools of hilsa move up the river to spawn during June-September and January-April. A Fisheries Department official said that a hilsa caught in April would most probably be a juvenile at three months old.