Governments of different times have taken a number of steps to protect our very own national heritage Hilsa fish from being consumed and exploited indiscriminately. In doing so, the erstwhile Government came up with an apparently timely amendment in the Protection and Conservation of Fish Act, 1950 in the year 2002 by introducing an outright ban on using Monofilament Synthetic Nylon Fibre Nets, popularly known as 'current jal'. Government agencies were found to be very vigilant in enforcing this piece of legislation by continuously confiscating illegal current jals over the years. Specially last two decades have been marked by the burning of a sizeable amount of those illegal current jals in the presence of concerned magistrates, coast-guard and other government officials. Although the total monetary value of the burnt current jals has not been calculated by any authority, it can roughly be estimated to be more than hundreds of crore by calculating the amount appears in the media in monthly basis during fishing season. After reducing the nets into ashes, what did we receive in return in the last two decades? We see that more current jals are used even amid a close surveillance of governmental agencies, who respond with burning more current jals and the cycle continues endangering even the environment.
If we dig out the issue to identify what made this updated legal regime less functional we cannot but deny pitfalls in our policy behind this legal regime. The aforementioned legislation has made manufacturing, fabricating, importing, marketing and storing punishable with up to three years imprisonment along with a maximum fine of BDT 10,000. Since the net industries are generally controlled by influential people, in very rare cases we see any bold steps being taken to bring them to book. Rather, law enforcing agencies are adept in targeting poor fishermen to burn their small investments under the 'due process' of law. To tackle the crux of the issue it is high time we reconsidered the inefficient policy behind this legal regime. It seems quite impracticable to trace only current jals and poor fishermen leaving behind major culprits who manufacture those nets. Although manufacturing has been labelled as punishable under the current law, such 'insufficient' punishment does not deter manufacturers since those are not exemplary and compelling. Moreover, they often use their muscle power to avoid those punishments and continue manufacturing in greater numbers in disguise.
From an economic perspective, also, this legal regime is suffering from serious problems since it is not able to halt the loss of economically valuable properties of marginalised people. Ironically, although the very law made the carrying, transporting, owning, possessing and using of current jal punishable, it did not give few other necessary powers to concerned officials. For example, putting the factories under sealed lock and key could have been added to the amendment of 2002 to block the industries from manufacturing these illegal nets. It could serve the purpose of deterring factory owners since they never will be willing to see their industries locked and left with zero production. Without focusing on these, for years together, we have invested our time and energy to chase fishermen to burn their last hopes resulting in huge economic loss both in micro and macro level. In most of the cases they had very little option otherwise in a situation where decreasing of natural inland fish resources is quite visible in Bangladesh. In many cases they take nets from usurers as loans with an undertaking of surrendering a sizeable amount of fish. Ironically, those well-off lenders also inflict the loss only to the fishermen.
Such inefficiency of laws has come into the attention of higher judiciary where a division bench of the High Court Division held 'sealing net industry under lock' by an executive magistrate illegal and without jurisdiction (Md. Jahangir Alam & others v Deputy Commissioner, Munshiganj & others, reported in 7 SCOB (2016) (HCD) 130), since the law of 1950 (even with the modification of 2002) and Protection and Conservation of Fish Rules, 1985 did not grant any such power to the concerned executive magistrates.
From an economic perspective, such a misguided approach to the pressing problem has resulted in victimising poor fishermen. Had the focus been given to halt the production of such nets by a comprehensive action plan, huge amount of money of poor fishermen would not have vanished in the air. It is high time the government came up with a necessary amendment in the Protection and Conservation of Fish Act, 1950 not only by introducing the provision of 'sealing and locking' of defaulter industries but also by discouraging the manufacturing of current jal with exemplary punishment.
The writer is Lecturer in Law, Daffodil International University.