Why does the price of Ilish fish increase so much during the last few weeks before Pohela Boishakh?
That is because Ilish fish and panta bhaat [soaked rice] has become the staple of Pohela Boishakh celebration. Ilish fish is widely popular because of its distinctive taste – even children like it. In recent years, Ilish has become a must-have in every household in Bangladesh – be it rich, middle-class or poor – on Pohela Boishakh. This excessive demand is causing the price hike.
However, Ilish is traditionally not a part of Pohela Boishakh cuisine. I remember that when I was child, the demand for Ilish was not as extreme as we see today.
But how is it that the price is going out of control every year?
Lack of monitoring on the government’s part is a major reason. We [local Ilish traders] have requested the government agencies to monitor the retail markets, because there is a huge price gap between the wholesale markets and the retail markets. There are instances of retailers increasing the price of Ilish manifold simply based on a rumour or a news of a big sale.
But prices are high in the wholesale market too.
You will find that a medium-sized Ilish fish costs around Tk600 in the retail market, but the same fish costs Tk300-400 in the wholesale market. The retail price is supposed to include the transport and rental costs only. But it turns out to be almost double the amount of what it should be.
Why is no legal action being taken to stop this trend?
Political influence and lack of coordination among government agencies are the main reasons. There is a law that says the difference of wholesale price and retail price should not exceed 10%. But that law is not implemented.
What is the Ministry of Fisheries doing?
Nothing satisfactory in the last three years. It has failed to bring modern fishing technologies, as well as properly manage the fishing industry.
What are the other problems in the local Ilish business?
The major problem right now is import of Ilish from Myanmar. Ilish from Myanmar is simply not as good in quality as Bangladeshi Ilish. But they are cheaper in price. At least 300-400 tonnes of Myanmar’s so-called Ilish fish are being imported every day for the last three months. Their Ilish is smaller in size and does not taste as good as our Ilish does. This is having a huge negative impact on our local Ilish business.
How is importing Ilish from Myanmar affecting the local market?
First, despite the export ban on Ilish in the country, the Ilish Myanmar coming to Bangladesh is somehow getting re-exported to India, North America and Europe. They are being exported as Bangladeshi Ilish, which is destroying the market of our local Ilish abroad.
The second problem is that, since Ilish from Myanmar is now available in abundance in our markets and is cheaper in price, our local produce is not selling. Ilish wholesalers are now forced to conserve their fish in cold storages. They are suffering huge losses.
Do you want a ban on Ilish import from Myanmar?
Absolutely. The government should ban importing Ilish from Myanmar as our local production is enough. It will also save our hard-earned foreign currency.
What is the status of local Ilish production?
It is quite good. We produce nearly 800,000 tonnes of Ilish annually. In 2016, we produced Ilish worth Tk20,000 crore.
However, according to government estimation, we produce only 395,000 tonnes of Ilish.
The government authorities do not have real data on Ilish production, consumption and demand, which is another reason why they are failing to plan any market intervention.
Has the ban on Ilish export had any impact on production?
Yes, the income has gone down. The ban was imposed during the tenure of the last caretaker government when the local market saw an unprecedented price hike. But their other initiatives to sustain the local market were not implemented, so in the end, the ban did not bring the intended results.
If the government prohibited Ilish import from Myanmar, local Ilish would be sold more and generate more income for both our fishermen and Ilish traders.
Is our Ilish being smuggled to India?
Not anymore. Smuggling was a huge problem even last year. In most cases, pirates in the coastal areas are involved in smuggling Bangladeshi Ilish to India. Last year, our fishermen could go to fish in the Bay of Bengal for two months due to the pirates’ activities. But the smuggling has reduced due to our law enforcement agencies’ efforts. They have been conducting raids against pirates.
Has the fishermen’s lives improved over the years?
Not significantly. Banglabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman established a cooperative society for the fishery sector in Chittagong in 1973. But it has done little to improve the lives of fishermen since then. However, with the support of President Abdul Hamid, the society is being reorganised. Fishermen communities are being brought under the social safety net programme. They are getting ID cards and compensation for injuries or death. Around 350,000 fisherment have been included in the programme so far.
What do you think about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s request not to consume Ilish on Pohela Boishakh?
It is not good for our business. We cannot deny the fact that Ilish is now an integral part of the celebration. She made a similar request last year too. But I understand that she made such a request to help with the ban on Ilish catching during the period of January-April, which is the breeding season of Ilish.
What is your opinion of online Ilish sale ?
It is a good initiative. But the price must be reasonable.