A seminar was organized by the Asian Development Bank to disseminate information on the agreement

Transport: The ambassadors of Bangladesh and India called for Bhutan’s parliament to ratify the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) as soon as possible given its potential benefits for the region, in Thimphu, yesterday.

They were referring to Parliament’s decision to revoke the agreement after it was endorsed. The agreement was revoked based on a voting technicality, and given the opposition party’s concerns relating to its impact on the environment, economy and security of the country. For one, the opposition says that the agreement may have an impact on the business of local transporters.

The two ambassadors made their arguments in their opening statements delivered to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) seminar attended by those participating in the BBIN Friendship Motor Rally that is currently passing through Bhutan.

“We hear there are certain misgivings and concerns in Bhutan about the MVA,” Indian ambassador Gautam Bambawale said. “Let me say that such questioning is normal and natural, it is very important to have a national consensus on such issues before we move ahead,” he said.

The ambassador pointed out that for a small country like Bhutan, it is natural for concerns, even misgivings to arise regarding the possibility of a huge increase in tourism or vehicular traffic. “However, let me assure the people and parliament of Bhutan that many scientific studies show that such agreements, such greater regional economic integrations, doesn’t all happen in one go,” he said. “There is a slow but steady increase in trade, tourism, vehicular traffic, which is quite manageable for even smaller countries of the size and population of Bhutan,” he added.

The ambassador added that there is evidence to show that the relatively smaller countries of Europe like Luxembourg and Switzerland have gained greatly from regional economic integration. He said the same would be true for the South Asian region.

“So let me urge Bhutan’s leadership to take this next step after having signed the BBIN MVA, to ratify and endorse it,” he said. “We look forward to Bhutan’s parliamentarians to exhibit the leadership which is required and quickly pass the enabling legislation for the BBIN MVA to become a practical reality on the ground.”

The ambassador quoted Peter Drucker, a management consultant whose writings have contributed to the modern business corporation. “Management is doing things right; while leadership is doing the right things,” the ambassador quoted. “I hope Bhutan’s parliamentarians will do the right thing and quickly endorse the BBIN MVA,” he added.

Bangladesh’s ambassador to Bhutan, Jishnu Roy Choudhury, also hoped that the MVA would be ratified as soon as possible. He said that not only would it bring the region closer in terms of trade and commerce, but it would also encourage people-to-people contact.

Speaking to Kuensel, information and communications minister, DN Dhungyel, pointed out that the agreement has not been cancelled or rejected, but simply deferred to the next session of parliament.

The minister said that this is being done so that the country understands the impact of the agreement prior to its ratification. “But in a democratic framework it’s our duty to make the people understand first,” Lyonpo said.

Lyonpo also said that he is aware of the people’s reservations, such as concerns on the country’s road infrastructure, among others, being overwhelmed by regional vehicles.

However, he pointed out that there are clauses in the agreement that would not allow the free flow of vehicles between the four countries.

An official explained that even once the agreement is ratified, bilateral or a trilateral agreements would still have to be made with Bangladesh and Nepal. The official said these are currently under process.

It is these bilateral or trilateral agreements that would work out the number of vehicles, whether they be private, commercial or cargo, that can operate between, for instance, Bhutan and Nepal. It would also be based on a reciprocal basis which means if Bhutan requires the entry of 100 trucks into Nepal in a month, the same number of Nepalese trucks would be allowed into Bhutan.

It was also pointed out that these numbers would be determined by market forces.

Bhutan already has an agreement with India, albeit one based on goodwill and not a signed document, that allows for private vehicles to move across the border of the two countries. While commercial vehicles like taxis are restricted to the border, the state of West Bengal allows two Bhutanese bus operators to carry passengers from Phuentsholing to Kolkata and back. Bhutanese and Indian cargo trucks can also operate on either side of the border but only to transport goods from one country to another.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) consultant, Achyut Bhandari, in a presentation pointed out some of the expected benefits of the agreement. He said that the agreement will bring down the cost of transporting goods and eliminate cumbersome cross-border transhipments. For example, he said that it would facilitate the transport of perishable goods like apples from Bhutan to Bangladesh. Currently, the apples have to be transferred from Bhutanese trucks to Bangladeshi ones at the Indo-Bangladesh border.

The consultant said that some of the restrictions will involve vehicles sticking to designated routes, and in case of re-fueling, visiting vehicles would be re-fueled at a standard unsubsidised rate. He said the ADB is planning to install trackers on vehicles and containers in this region within two years to ensure they stick to designated routes.

On affecting local transporters, it was explained that cabotage, or the transport of passengers or cargo, between two places in the same country is not permitted under the agreement. He reiterated that the BBIN MVA is a framework and that details will be worked out between the four countries.

The seminar was organized by the ADB to disseminate information on the agreement and importance of regional connectivity in South Asia. ADB is providing technical and financial support to facilitate negotiations on the MVA and to organize meetings and such events.

The BBIN MVA was signed by the transport ministers of the four countries in Thimphu in June.

By Gyalsten K Dorji