Kolkata: India’s Border Security Force has seized close to 2,800 kg of Bangladeshi hilsa in the last seven months, in a rare example of ‘reverse smuggling’.
Friday, BSF troops at the Kalyani border outpost (BOP) in the southern part of the India-Bangladesh frontier seized 200 kg hilsa worth Rs 2,40,000 (price at source). The smugglers had been wading through a water body near the border, a senior BSF official said.
The previous day, the force seized 190 kg hilsa in Murshidabad further north, and officials said such interceptions have now become routine.
Bangladeshi hilsa is considered a delicacy in West Bengal, and people are willing to pay high prices for it because the neighbouring country banned its export about eight years ago, and supply resumed only briefly in 2019. Now, Bengalis are ready to pay Rs 2,500-3,000 for the ‘Padmar ilish’ (hilsa from the river Padma, believed to be of superior quality), and Kolkata’s local markets as well as e-sellers are charging them that much. Ganga hilsa and sea hilsa are being sold between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800 per kg.
According to BSF data accessed by The Print, a total of 2,776 kg of Bangladeshi hilsa have been seized since February, which would’ve fetched close to Rs 75 lakh in Kolkata’s markets. Three of the bigger consignments came with 600, 300 and 200 kg of the fish.
Senior BSF officials say intercepting hilsa consignments is a friendly gesture by India towards its neighbour. They use the term ‘reverse smuggling’ for the practice, because ‘smuggling’ generally refers to cattle or other items banned by India being taken to Bangladesh.
The illegal trade generally takes place at the riverine borders in Malda and Murshidabad districts, and the southern land border in North 24 Parganas.
“In most cases, the smugglers come through the riverine borders at night; sometimes they cross over through the land border too. We have held 11 smugglers in nine cases and handed them over to the police. All of them are Indian nationals,” said S.S. Guleria, deputy inspector-general of the BSF.
“Our mandate is to stop any kind of smuggling across the border. We cannot differentiate between good smuggling and bad smuggling. Any product that comes through the border without the approval of either country is a smuggled product for us. And we will stop it. The sanctity of the international border is supreme,” Guleria stressed.
“As far as hilsa is concerned, Bangladeshi government has imposed a ban on export, and it is coming from that side illegally. So, we cannot allow it to enter our country… Bangladesh is our friendly neighbour,” he said.
When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh first banned hilsa export, it initially said this was done due to a growing clamour to protect the hilsa in the Padma river.
However, in 2015, during Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Dhaka, Hasina said hilsa would reach Bengal as soon as water from the Teesta river would flow into Bangladesh. Banerjee had objected to sharing Teesta waters with Bangladesh, as she said the river doesn’t have enough water to share, and doing so would impact farmers in north Bengal.
For this reason, people on both sides of the border have begun calling it ‘hilsa diplomacy’.
In September 2019, the Bangladesh government allowed the export of 500 tonnes of hilsa to India as a Durga Puja ‘gift’, with the fish arriving through the Petrapole-Benapole land border in North 24 Parganas. Padmar ilish was a sought-after item on the festive menu that year, being sold at Rs 1,700-1,800 per kg.
However, the illegal trade seems to have picked up the pace, leaving bona fide fish import businesses in the lurch.
Once the BSF seizes the hilsa, it hands the consignments over to Customs, which then auctions the fish locally. Wholesale vendors buy from the auction or get a supply illegally, resulting in high prices for buyers in Kolkata, said Kartick Chakrabarty, secretary of the traders and exporters’ association at Petrapole.
Importers have been trying to convince the governments to lift the ban.
“Earlier, we all used to have companies that used to supply hilsa to wholesale markets across the country. During the season (May to July), we would earn Rs 20 to 25 lakh. However, since 2012, we have lost all business; now, we import regular fish from Bangladesh,” said Atul Das, president of the Fish Importers Association, registered with the central government.
“Since 2012, 42 companies that used to deal in hilsa imports have closed down. Import used to be tax free and we had a general licence. It used to be a huge market. Now, the hilsa costs around 900 per kg in Bangladesh and the buyers pay more than double, because the product is smuggled,” he said.
Das said Indian leaders from CM Banerjee to late external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj have made the request to PM Hasina and her government many times, but she won’t budge till the Teesta waters issue is resolved.
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