The BBIN motor vehicle agreement is back on the agenda for an upcoming joint session of Parliament where it will be put to a vote.
Going by the current state of affairs, the government is unlikely to garner the required 48 votes, and the agreement faces the death knell. The government anticipating such a tragedy, attempted to withdraw the agreement, in a bid to buy more time to convince critics and opponents, and reintroduce the bill at a later date.
However, legislative procedure does not allow for such a move once a bill has reached the joint committee level. It has to be deliberated in a joint sitting and a vote held to complete the procedure.
The majority of the public are against the BBIN agreement. This is because they have concerns of the country being overwhelmed by regional tourists and vehicles, and of our limited infrastructure being overburdened. Taxi and truck drivers expect to lose business. Environmentalists predict increased levels of pollution. Concerned citizens see threats posed to the country’s culture, security and sovereignty.
The government now does not have the luxury of time to convince the people that their concerns are unfounded. A largely opaque process must now become transparent. The government must share with the public its progress in obtaining guarantees of the limitations it has sought from Bangladesh and Nepal.
The government is attempting to convince the two countries to accept Bhutan not reciprocating some of the very changes the BBIN agreement was created to introduce: seamless transfer of commercial vehicles between the four countries. The government has been negotiating with the two countries to have their commercial vehicles stop at our border while ours would have access to their markets.
If such a deal has been accepted, the government should let us know, or at least provide clarity on how local businesses will be protected. The government has already met with the taxi and trucking community, but they remain unconvinced and unswayed.
The government has also argued that there are more Bhutanese travelling to Bangladesh and Nepal, for leisure or business, and that the country is not a top destination for citizens of these two countries. However, such a statement should be backed up by statistics.
The government has also said there will be caps on the number of privately owned vehicles that can enter Bhutan. We are yet to know what these limits are and if the limits would be effective in keeping traffic at an acceptable level.
There are also concerns that the BBIN agreement does not change the current unofficial agreement with India which allows for unlimited number of private vehicles to move across the border, and that a motor vehicle agreement with India should be worked out first. Again, there is a need to know what the level and amount of traffic between the two countries is, and if a cap based on reciprocity must be placed.
Undoubtedly, the BBIN agreement will open up economic opportunities for Bhutan. However, there are no concrete examples being provided of how Bhutan will benefit from this agreement. The onus is on the government to change the mindset of a people, who value their uniqueness in terms of culture, environment, peace and security, to suddenly open their doors to a more tangible form of regional integration.