Idris bhai, your voice has been heard!

A chance conversation with a Bangladeshi fisherman may have paid off.

24 March 2015
Bangladeshi fishers with debts must repay loans even when fishing is banned, resulting in illegal fishing activities (Photo: John Pavelka, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Bangladeshi fishers with debts must repay loans even when fishing is banned, resulting in illegal fishing activities (Photo: John Pavelka, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Last year, I blogged about a conversation I had with a Bangladeshi fisherman, Idris bhai, as I prefer to call him (bhai is a title commonly used to address peers or friends in Bangladesh and literally means brother in Bengali).

During our conversation, I shared with him the main objectives of our Darwin Initiative-funded project that aims to enhance the effectiveness of a government-sponsored incentive-based scheme to improve sustainable management of hilsa shad, the most important single-species fishery for the Bangladesh economy.

He had wisely tallied four points he thought we have overlooked in our research project, two of which seemed particularly pressing from a policy perspective.

He pointed firstly to the contradiction between banning the use of monofilament net (locally known as current jal) while at the same time permitting their production; and secondly raised the over-reliance of fishers on local money lenders that force them to go fishing even during the ban period in order to repay their debt.

Defying conventional approaches to research, and taking a calculated risk of potentially getting diverted from our research focus, we decided to take Idris bhai's points seriously and communicate them with policymakers. This seems to have paid off and here’s the reason why.

Government bans current jal production

On 19 January 2015, together with researchers from the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU), we met with senior government officials from the Bangladeshi Department of Fisheries (DoF). We wanted to share our research findings with the officials and help inform the policymaking processes for hilsa shad management.

Director general of the Bangladesh Department of Fisheries Syed Arif Azad discusses policy for hilsa fisheries management (Photo: Essam Yassin Mohammed/IIED)During the briefing meeting, Syed Arif Azad, director general of DoF, alluded that efforts were being made to ban both the production and use of current jal in Bangladesh. The ban is expected to be ratified by the parliament and come into effect in the near future.

Extending microcredit to hilsa fishers

One of the major constraints most hilsa fishers face is limited access to microcredit. Formal microfinance institutions often do not have either 1) adequate resources to meet the demands for microcredit, or 2) do not provide credit to fishers since most of the fishers cannot offer collateral or are regarded as 'not creditworthy'.

This has forced many hilsa fishers to rely on local money lenders, commonly known as aratdars. Fishers who already have debts are expected to repay their loans even during periods when fishing activities are banned, resulting in illegal fishing activity.

We have been arguing that microcredit should be introduced and tailored to meet the needs generated by a fishing ban. This must include a 'grace period' that protects fishers from repaying capital or interest when the fishery is closed, which would in turn boost compliance with the ban.

Well-thought-out microcredit should gradually liberate hilsa fishers from a cyclical debt trap and prevent the interest rates they pay rising when the fishery is closed. This was strongly supported by the director general of DoF in the meeting.

I had the opportunity to meet with Mihir Kanti Majumder, former Secretary of Environment in Bangladesh and the current chair of the Palli Sanchoy Bank (PSB) – the Rural Savings Bank in English. PSB provides microcredit and micro-savings programmes to small-scale producers.

This is a project-based and not-for-profit government-sponsored scheme that aims to liberate farmers from the debt trap. We discussed the possibility of extending the service to hilsa fishers as part of the incentive-based scheme that is conditional on the fishers abiding with the non-fishing period. The microcredit will also provide a grace period during the ban.

Former Bangladesh Secretary of the Environment and current chair of the Palli Sanchoy Bank (PSB)  Mihir Kanti Majumder was keen to discuss extending microcredit and micro-savings programmes to hilsa fishers (Photo: Anders Birch,

He agreed and took immediate action. He has already drafted a proposal requesting the Prime Minister's office to approve 2.44 billion Taka (equivalent to US$31 million) to pilot the project for two years. If this is approved, then the scheme will play a significant role in liberating thousands of fishers from the debt trap and enhancing the effectiveness of the compensation scheme through increased compliance.

Khoda sab janta hai

In my previous conversation with Idris bhai, I had asked him (with the help of a translator) whether he thought it was possible to address all of these issues. At that point, he looked away.

His reply was simply "Khoda sab janta hai" – which literally means "God knows". Well, I guess God has answered at least some of his prayers.

Essam Yassin Mohammed ([email protected]) is senior researcher in environmental economics in IIED's Sustainable Markets Group.