Public discourse, a necessity

The fear is that Bhutan will be overwhelmed by private vehicles and cargo trucks from Bangladesh and Nepal if it were to ratify the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal Motor Vehicle Agreement (BBIN MVA).

Those concerned envision our small roads choking with private vehicles from our neighbouring countries. Our local truckers, without even putting up a fight, are already vigorously waving the white flag and are threatening to sell their trucks and migrate back to their farms as soon as the agreement is ratified.

Given our situation as a small developing nation, economically challenged, culturally unique and rare, such concerns are to be expected. But such concerns also reflect perhaps, a lack of information sharing with those who could be affected by the agreement.

There are provisions in the BBIN MVA that may address such concerns. While cross-border movement of vehicles are permitted, further agreements would be required that would place caps on the number of vehicles that would be permitted into Bhutan. Such caps could prevent Bhutan from being swamped by large numbers of regional vehicles.

The current informal arrangement with India would remain unchanged under the BBIN MVA. This arrangement restricts Indian trucks from entering Bhutan unless under special circumstances, just as Bhutanese trucks are allowed to ferry perishables all the way to the Bangladesh border. There is no cap on the number of private vehicles that can cross the border but on any given day, we currently do not see a large number of Indian private vehicles on Bhutanese roads.

This in a way gives some credence to the government’s argument that demand for Bhutan is less than Bhutanese demand for India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. We’ve more Bhutanese going out to these countries, and our exports are more than our imports. Therefore, the BBIN MVA would provide us with more of a business advantage.

Despite this reasoning, the government has still gone ahead and requested the Bangladesh government to consider Bhutan as a unique case and limit trucks and scheduled bus services to the borders. It will be making the same request to Nepal. If the two countries agree, we would have the same kind of arrangement with the two countries that we currently have with India. Our truckers would be protected.

But the lessons we can take out of this is that an increasingly educated and working class electorate want to know the implications of an international agreement that its government was going to ratify, or in fact, had already ratified before its was pulled. Perhaps it is timely that the implications of future international agreements are shared with the public before being adopted or ratified.

The government could perhaps in the next few months reveal the number of vehicles it would be permitting under its bilateral or trilateral agreements and show how the numbers are calculated.

It could also make known what measures it will take to mitigate the environmental impact of regional vehicles in Bhutan. For instance, whether visiting vehicles would be subjected to the green tax or local emission standards.

There are other aspects like security, immigration, and customs inspections that would be required on visiting vehicles. How the government would overcome its limitations and ensure these aspects also need to be shared.

While the government will undoubtedly seek to clarify such issues in the next few months, one thing is clear, public discourse prior to adopting and ratifying international agreements is necessary.

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