No alternative to hilsa but hilsa!


It’s not easy treating guests to dinner nowadays, particularly if you are serving fish. The question immediately arises - is it farmed fish or river fish? Even if you serve chicken, it’s the same question, is it farmed or free-run? After all, farmed fish and animals are fed all sorts of dubious food, including waste from the tannery industry. In fact, traces of chromium have even been found in such poultry feed. So while farmed fish and poultry may be cheaper, they are toxic too.

Fish and poultry production is being boosted in in the country through scientific means, but there is no tangible study or policy as to the health risks involved. For example, the polluted waters of the rivers Buriganga, Sitalakkhya and Turag most times of the year do not have the correct levels of bio-oxygen demand (BOD) and carbon-oxygen demand (COD). Thus pond weed and other natural fish food cannot grow in the water. So, common fish cannot survive there, other than certain fish that remain buried deep in the mud. That is why even in the month of Chaitra (around March-April), fish are caught from the muddy beds of the toxic rivers like Buriganga. Even the media does not carry reports on the toxicity of these fish. Where is the time for the denizens Dhaka, the second least liveable city in the world, to ponder over such matters?

On 9 September, a foreign variety of catfish (magur), each weighing 17kg, was caught in the murky waters of a muddy pool in Faridpur’s Kotwali thana. The owner of the pond was horrified at the sight of the ‘monster’ fish and gave them away for free!

This qurbani Eid, the biggest bull on sale weighed 52 maunds, named Raja Babu and cost Tk 1.5 million. It couldn’t be sold even till the day before Eid. Finally it was sold at a much lower price, with a goat thrown in for free. The qurbani Eid market was rife with hybrid and clone livestock, imported from abroad. These were costly to feed and to care for, but the buyers were more interested in the smaller local variety of animals. Bangladesh is successfully surging forward in livestock and fish production, already at number four in the world.

In the meantime, there has been success in the cultivation of shrimps, but not so much with the silver hilsa. Hilsa swims back and forth from the river to the sea and comes up in shoals at certain times during the full moon and moonless nights. They swim for thousands of kilometres from the Bay of Bengal in the monsoons up north through the rivers Teesta-Dharla past the boundaries of Bangladesh to Torsa, Ratnai, Mansa and other such small rivers by Silliguri in India. They have strange swimming habits.

It is now claimed that the mystery of the hilsa genome has been decoded. A research team of Dhaka University’s biology department announced that they had discovered the genetic code of the hilsa. Within two days, a research team of Bangladesh Agricultural University said they had already decoded the hilsa genome and had applied for its patent! Whatever the case maybe, it is good to see such healthy competition among the country’s public universities. It indicates that with proper funding, our universities can do well in research.

Having reached zero population growth, developed countries are now turning to robots. They may have invented robots to save on wages and bonuses spent on human labour, but in the end they have had to play on electricity and maintenance of the robots. And robots cannot research. Research is carried out by inquisitive humans. Bangladesh has much talent and we can only hope they do not waste their research on destructive endeavours, but on protecting our biodiversity.

While decoding the genetic code of hilsa is an achievement, it is only hoped that there is no creation like the monstrous magurs, pangas and qurbani bulls. Irri rice is cut and polished, washed in fragrance and sold in the market as polau rice, much to the profit of the traders. Does anyone really get the taste of genuine polau with such rice? If hilsas become like the 17kg muddy water magurs, will that have any flavour at all to be served as a delicacy on special occasions? Isn’t cultivating hilsa in ponds taking us in that direction?

Sardines from Oman, Chandana from Myanmar and Thailand, are sold in the market as hilsa. But the moment one cooks and eats these fish, they will never repeat the experience. There is no alternative to hilsa but hilsa! Hilsa can only be compared to hilsa. This fish, habitat of the rivers and sea, has a unique flavour of its own.

We don’t want to see the lively silver hilsa entrapped like the pale broiler chickens. We do not want to lose that fragrance and flavour of hilsa. Let us use the hilsa genetic code for further research, to help in natural reproduction, protection and treatment of the hilsa. This will also help in devising policies for the protection of the fish, its movement and breeding grounds. Then we can really uphold the pride in hilsa being recognised as a world heritage.

* Fakrul Islam is a writer, dean of Rajshahi University’s social science faculty, professor and former chairman of the department of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected]. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir