28 vote in favour, 10 against, and 3 abstain

BBIN: The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) transport agreement passed its first parliamentary hurdle yesterday when the National Assembly endorsed the sub-regional agreement amid stiff resistance from the opposition.

Out of the total 41 MPs present, 28 voted in favour of the agreement, while 10 voted against and three abstained. At least 24 votes are required to pass a bill in the Assembly.

However, yet another major roadblock awaits the motor vehicle agreement in the National Council. Transport operators have filed a petition to the Council’s Chairperson, requesting Parliament block the BBIN agreement.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said the agreement would not allow free flow of foreign vehicles into the country but regulate the cross-border movement of vehicles in the sub-region. “The agreement will bring economic benefits to the country,” he said.

The Prime Minister also said that the agreement presents an opportunity to regulate the movement of vehicles between Bhutan and India. “This agreement is very important for enhancing cooperation with our neighbours,” he said.

The government says it will ensure that cargo vehicles from Bangladesh and Nepal park at the border to safeguard the interests of the transport industry. On the other hand, this arrangement will not stop Bhutanese vehicles from plying into Nepal and Bangladesh.

This will be ensured through formulation of a protocol for implementing the agreement, the main aim of which is to allow vehicles to enter each other’s territory. The protocol, which is being worked out, has to be collectively agreed upon by the member countries.

Information and communications minister DN Dhungyel said the four countries signed the agreement because of the failure of the eight SAARC member countries to sign a similar agreement. He said the government carried out three rounds of stakeholder meetings to convey the benefits of the agreement.

However, the stakeholders were not convinced with the government’s argument, as was the opposition party.

Opposition MP from Panbang, Dorji Wangdi, said no consultations were held with the people. “It was important to consult people on the issue,” he said, adding that the local governments and the people were not in support of the agreement.

Opposition members said although the objectives of the agreement were for promotion of cooperation and friendship, the country should be mindful of its implications.

South Thimphu MP Yeshey Zimba said a lot of tourists are already coming in their own cars and that allowing more cars would lead to traffic congestion and environmental problems. “We should look at the long-term national interest rather than some short-term benefits,” he said.

The opposition is also of the view that an increased flow of vehicles could affect the tourism industry and pose security risks.

MP Dorji Wangdi said social problems such as human trafficking could also come along with an increased flow of vehicles into the country. “Not even one person spoke in favour of the agreement during the opposition leader’s recent dzongkhag visits,” he said.

Just before the vote, Opposition Leader Dr Pema Gyamtsho said the opposition has supported the government wherever possible and necessary, but that it would not support the agreement. He said that local leaders and transport operators alike are worried that the agreement would do more harm than good.

Meanwhile, the current arrangement on trade and vehicles with India will remain the same. The government is of the view that Bhutan would be at the losing end if ratification does not take place.

The BBIN agreement states that the contracting parties will allow cargo vehicles for inter-country cargo including third country cargo and passenger vehicles for both hire and reward or personal vehicles to ply in the territory of another contracting country “subject to the terms of the agreement”. All the vehicles will require a permit for plying through the other country.

In what could be objectionable for transport operators, the agreement provides for non-regular passenger vehicles to be permitted on a case-to-case basis for a period of up to 30 days. Transporter operators feel that this will kill their business.

However, the agreement also contains clauses that allow Bhutan to safeguard its interests. The agreement states that a vehicle plying in the territory of one of the countries will have to use authorised routes through authorised immigration check points.

Such arrangements, though, will have to be worked out by mutual agreement. “Any deviation from the route will be treated as violation of the permit conditions and of the relevant customs laws of the contracting parties,” the agreement states.

According to the BBIN agreement, the details of routes for foreign vehicles will be specified in the protocol. The number of vehicles plying on different routes will be fixed after mutual consultations.

The agreement also prescribes that vehicles registered in one member country will not be permitted to transport local passengers and goods within the territory of another country.

MB Subba