Connectivity: In what should transform the way travel and trade is conducted in the region, the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) will be signed by the transport ministers of the four countries in Thimphu today.

In brief, the agreement will set the stage for bilateral or trilateral agreements to be made between the four countries so that vehicles, both personal and commercial, and their occupants or cargo, can pass through the borders of the four countries more seamlessly, similar to the European Union.

Currently, Bhutan only has a special arrangement on passage of motor vehicles with India.

The ultimate objective of the agreement is to reduce or eliminate trade barriers.

A preliminary meeting between the transport secretaries of the four countries and other senior officials was held in Thimphu, yesterday.

In his opening statement, information and communications secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji said that very few minor issues remained to be resolved.

“This agreement provides flexibility to negotiate bilateral or trilateral arrangements to suit circumstances and specific needs of member countries,” he said. “This is especially important for a small and landlocked country like Bhutan,” he added.

The BBIN MVA is a framework agreement and implementation details related to customs formalities, local permits, repair of vehicles, temporary entry of vehicles, refueling facilities, insurance, fees and charges, designation and other operational aspects will be worked out in bilateral or trilateral agreements.

“We’re aware of the magnitude of the work remaining after the agreement is signed, and work has to start in earnest,” Dasho Kinley Dorji said, referring to the bilateral or trilateral agreements that would have to be worked out between the four countries.

National Land Transport Facilitation committees or commissions will also have to be established in each country. Implementation of the BBIN MVA will be guided by these committees, which will also discuss and resolve any issues related to the agreements.

A target of 12 months, from the date of signing, has been laid to complete activities leading up to the implementation of the BBIN MVA. “The target is to complete all the processes during a period of twelve months from the date of signing the agreement and will depend on the time taken to complete other remaining internal requirements such as ratification by the respective Parliament, as may be relevant,” it is stated in an information and communciations press release.

The four secretaries were in consensus that implementation should be sped up.

Road transport secretary for India, Vijay Chhibber, said India’s focus is on how fast the agreement can be implemented. “Prime focus should be on actualising,” he said. “We’ve already made substantial progress in terms of what we set out to do, we’ve a common objective and this objective can be best put into practice through this framework agreement,” he added.

“There are very few issues that remain to be resolved. We can happily agree to those in a short time.” Besides with Bhutan, India also has a bilateral agreement with Nepal, and a bus service linking Bangladesh.

“We will be guided by all of you, in whatever pace you want to go and whatever areas you want to cover, we will not have any difficulty in whatever you intend to do,” he also said.

Road transport secretary for Bangladesh, MAN Siddique, also hoped that the agreement can be finalised soon.

“We’ve been trying to connect the region through the different modes of transport, under the SAARC umbrella, for the last five years, but we’re yet to conclude the relevant agreement under the aegis of SAARC,” he said.

The MVA agreement was initially proposed as one that would compose the entire SAARC region. However, it was not signed during the 18th SAARC summit in held in Kathmandu last year after reservations were raised by Pakistan.

As a result, the agreement was scaled down to a sub-regional one comprising of only the present four countries.

The secretary also pointed out that Bangladesh is a sincere proponent of regional connectivity and accorded a high value to enhancing regional cooperation. “We recognise connectivity as essential to ensure sustainable development of our regional as well as to assure greater heights for our people,” he said.

The transport secretary for Nepal, Tulsi Prasad Sitaula, said that it is hoped that the SAARC agreement can be revived in the near future. He pointed out that perhaps that could occur when the SAARC transport ministers meet in Kathmandu, next month.

Economic affairs joint secretary, Sonam P Wangdi, pointed out that the process to reach the present level had taken almost two decades. “I believe this is a historic meeting where we’re setting a new milestone, I recall that this process was started sometime in the late 90s, so it has taken almost 16-17 years to reach this level,” he said.

The joint secretary added that connectivity is the nerve centre for development and economic integration and that despite the existence of the South Asian Free Trade Agreement, other required components like seamless connectivity had not occurred.

He said that implementation must be expedited.

Besides signing the framework agreement, the transport ministers will also discuss proposed arrangements to implement the agreement on cross-border movement of vehicles and a review of priority regional road connectivity projects today.

The information and communications ministry in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank is hosting this first meeting between transport ministers of the four countries.

By Gyalsten K Dorji