Although the country is yet to ratify the BBIN motor vehicle agreement (MVA), studies have already been conducted to present the ground realities along the BBIN corridor.

To share and discuss the insights of various studies conducted, representatives of the member countries from the government, CSO and private sector among others attended a three-day regional policy dialogue in New Delhi, India on May 2.

The BBIN MVA is expected to expand and built economic cooperation and connectivity in the region.

“MVA is a just a tool to realise a greater outcome of sustainable and inclusive development through employment generation and poverty alleviation in the region,” said Mustafizur Rahman from the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Bangladesh think tank.

However, the MVA itself is confronted with several issues at the implementation level.

For instance, the current state of road infrastructure in the region is an impediment to successful implementation of the MVA. Improper water and sanitation facilities at the ports, parking issues, weak regulatory and institutional arrangements, inefficient customs procedure and absence of testing and standard related institutions are some of infrastructural challenges.

At the policy level, the study pointed out that lack of coordination among border agencies add to the complexities in procedural and regulatory formalities. Environmental issues and livelihood concerns among the truckers were highlighted as ‘uncompromising position’ on Bhutan’s part.

Despite the challenges, connectivity is happening and going beyond the BBIN countries. The agenda is now, BBIN+M (Myanmar), ultimately paving the road to Myanmar, towards Thailand and further, to explore the untapped trade potentials.

Director for Bangladesh Foreign Trade Institute, Amitava Chakraborty said that intra-regional trade is struggling below five percent and investment is even low at one percent.

Former commerce secretary of Nepal, Purushottam Ojha said that cross border terrorism is another issue hindering trade. “Let’s not hinder the BBIN just like SAARC because of political difference,” he said.

In case of Bhutan, one of the studies pointed out that the possible routes for Bhutan are: Thimphu-Phuentsholing-Jaigoan-Burimari-Katikamrul-Mongla/Chittagong and Samdrupjongkhar-Guwahati-Shilong-Tamabil-Sylhet-Chittagong.

The study revealed that in case of the former route, Bhutanese truckers took time only at the entry point in Jaigaon. From Changrabandha, the transit point on the Bangladesh-India border in West Bengal,customs clearance includes inspection of the seal done by Jaigaon customs. Bhutanese truckers are then allowed to enter Bangladesh from Burimari until the unloading point near the border. Local truckers in Bangladesh cover rest of the distance in this corridor. The study stated that waiting time could be reduced through containerisation of cargos and providing appropriate roads. From Thimphu until Dhaka, a consignment is stopped at nine different spots and involves transshipment.

However, another corridor, the Thimphu-Samdrupjongkhar-Guwahati-Silliest-Dhaka-Benapole/Petrapole-Kolkata is identified as a shorter route involving less transportation cost for Bhutan to access both Indian and Bangladesh markets.

But it was also observed that all three countries have their own rules and regulations for customs clearance and the procedure for submitting documents is cumbersome and lengthy. Based on a discussion with the traders, the study stated that time taken for custom clearance differs significantly at all the three border checkpoints and huge time is lost. This is again not a serious issue with trade between Bhutan and India because of the free trade agreement. Transit issues and infrastructural obstacles are other issues that surfaced on this route.

Due to the cumbersome process, another study highlighted that informal trade is thriving in the region. While informal trade involves little procedures, the involvement of middlemen deters trade especially the farmers who are affected.

The study also found that there is an investment gap of USD 2.5 trillion for infrastructure development.

Former information and communications secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji, in his address at the dialogue said that Bhutan is yet to ratify the MVA. However, he said that connectivity should be enhanced not just in terms of surface transport but also in ICT and financial services. With Myanmar, another Buddhist country coming on board, he said tourism and pilgrimage is another area to be explored to augment the cultural ties within the region.

Policy Analyst from CUTS international, the organiser of the dialogue and a NGO in India which deals with trade issues, said that connectivity is bound to boost trade. For truckers, their livelihood is dependent on the magnitude of cargo.

The study also found that more women are engaged in economic activities along the corridor but they are most widows and elderly. “Young women do not engage in economic activity along the corridor because of security concerns,” she said.

For the purpose of the study, Bhutan Media and Communication Institute (BMCI) was the partner from Bhutan to carry out the study and consultations specific to Bhutan.

Director of BMCI, Pushpa Chhetri, said that there is a general lack of awareness.

A major concern for the Bhutanese truckers, she said is the security issue while plying the Indian roads. She said that it is imperative for people to know what is coming so that the people can make informed decisions.

Even then, risks remains. An issue of concern is the public health issues as highlighted by Anasua Basu Roychaudhury, a fellow at Observer Research Foundation, another Indian think tank.

She said that risk of diseases like HIV, malaria and other communicable diseases will threaten the livelihood of the people living along the economic corridor, unless health infrastructure and information sharing is adequate. Women, she said would remain more vulnerable, especially those in the sex industry.

Tshering Dorji | New Delhi