Connectivity: Parliament is expected to once again vote on the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA). The National Assembly is likely to submit it to His Majesty The King for Royal Command to deliberate the agreement in a joint sitting.

Support of the National Council (NC) and the opposition party is necessary for the government to push the agreement through Parliament. Both stand against ratifying the agreement.

The road connectivity plan on November 15 hit a major roadblock when the NC voted against ratifying the agreement, under which the sub-regional transport initiative was taken. The MVA, if ratified, will allow cross-border movement of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles on authorised routes within the sub-region.

The government’s efforts to convince the NC and the opposition about the merits of the agreement have yielded no results. The two are of the view that the drawbacks on environment and security far outweigh the expected benefits.

The chairman of the legislative committee of the National Assembly, Ritu Raj Chhetri, said the government will discuss with the NC members and the opposition party and try to convince them before the agreement is put to vote. “It is very important for us to ratify the BBIN agreement,” he said.

Ritu Raj Chhetri informed that the Assembly will deliberate on the objections of the NC  on Monday. He said he is confident that Parliament will pass the agreement. The government will need 48 MPs in its favour in a joint sitting.

However, in its efforts to woo the stakeholders, the government has contradicted not only some of its own statements but also some of the terms of the agreement.

The government says that the ratification of the agreement allows for regulation of Indian cars in Bhutan. On the other hand, it says that the existing arrangements in transport with the neighbour will remain unchanged.

The government has also said that it will request the three countries to allow Bhutan to permit a lesser number of vehicles into its territory while Bhutan can send more. This contradicts the principle of reciprocity on which the agreement is based on.

In an earlier interview, information and communications ministry officials had told Kuensel that cargo vehicles from Bangladesh and Nepal would be asked to stop at the border. This stance apparently has been dropped.

The NC believes that Bhutan will be disadvantaged due to asymmetry in its size and population compared to the other members. While presenting the review report of the agreement in the House recently, NC’s legislative committee chairman Sonam Wangchuk said: “It would not be convenient for us to say we welcome only five vehicles while Bhutan will send 10.”

Speaking in the House, foreign minister Damcho Dorji said the protocol of the agreement will safeguard the country’s national interests. “We will prescribe in the protocol about how many vehicles during a certain period of time will be allowed and where,” he said.

However, the stakeholders are not convinced that Bhutan will be able to win a deal that will be in contradiction with the agreement. “I don’t think our government would be able to negotiate terms and conditions outside the framework of the agreement,” a transport operator said.

A draft protocol has been prepared but some NC members have said the document is unclear. The draft says that implementation of the agreement with Bangladesh and Nepal will be “deferred”, while the existing arrangement with India will not be affected.

This will mean that the status quo will remain. And questions on the need to ratify the agreement have been raised, if nothing on the ground will change.

The draft states that “the contracting parties shall each establish a permanent National Land Transport Facilitation Committee or a similar body chaired by the Secretary or equivalent and comprising representatives of all agencies concerned to coordinate and monitor the implementation of the agreement and the protocol”.

The government says Bhutan will miss an opportunity to not only be an active member of BBIN but also be left out from the economic benefits of sub-regional cooperation if Bhutan does not ratify the agreement. Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said it would be inconvenient for Bhutan to engage in other economic cooperation under the BBIN umbrella.

The government is pushing the BBIN agreement because it is not just about motor vehicles but about energy, trade, information, communication and technology, and other forms of regional cooperation.

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”.

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. However, stakeholders don’t believe this clause is adequate to protect the interest of transport operators and other concerns related to the environment, national security and culture.

Even if the agreement is passed in a joint sitting, Parliament can still block implementation of the agreement if MPs are not satisfied that the protocol will safeguard Bhutan’s interests. Unlike in the other BBIN members, protocols have to be passed like any other Bill in Bhutan.

MB Subba