Bengalis have shown the world that the hilsa flourishes in mustard sauce set off by green chillies. Now, they are learning that it’s no good unless the fish are allowed to flourish in their native waters for a while, before they are plopped in the mustard sauce.
Last year, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh swore off celebrating the new year with Meghna hilsa. West Bengal, which is just as fascinated by the fish, launched an ad campaign discouraging people from having anything to do with juvenile specimens. One TV ad excitedly urged people not to keep any small hilsa with them. As though they habitually carry small hilsa about in their pockets.
Inspired by their brethren across the border in Bangladesh, who went to war against overfishing when catches fell by orders of magnitude while prices soared, lawmakers in West Bengal are now ready to bring the majesty of the law to bear on illicit fishing in the spawning season, when hilsa swim upriver like salmon.
Again, like salmon (the wild Alaskan variety is protected by law, by the way), hilsa could be legally shielded from fishermen and traders who catch and sell small specimens. Hilsa reappeared in Indian waters when Bangladesh declared fish swimming up from the Bay of Bengal off-limits.
Now, it is India’s turn to prevent overfishing, so that hilsa venture further up the Ganga and Brahmaputra river systems, for everyone’s pleasure and profit. Size matters, and not only in fishing yarns. Apart from the ethical considerations, the smallest deserve protection because they have room to register the highest growth, and potentially offer the best returns. India under-appreciates this obvious principle.
In politics, business and society, the future belongs to the small fry. But like the hilsa, they may need a little protection en route.