The government’s plan to reconsider the controversial motor vehicle agreement involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) has revived the debate over whether Bhutan should join the sub-regional group. 

Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, which had largely remained silent on the BBIN debate earlier, after forming the government said that the BBIN agreement was more than just about transport. 

Amid social media comments, which have come both against and in favour of the agreement, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering yesterday told Kuensel that the government’s plan should not have raised any concerns. 

“We’re absolutely neutral. We are neither for BBIN agreement nor against it. It is something that the government cannot consider or reject easily,” Lyonchhen said. 

While acknowledging that there are many things Bhutan needed to consider, Lyonchhen said that the country would gain a lot from the BBIN agreement. “The issue needs to be studied very closely and an in-depth research has to be carried out,” he said. 

He said that the government was interested in listening to those who are against the BBIN agreement and those in favour of it. 

The government, he added, would dissect the issue and hold multiple consultations with stakeholders and that the agreement was not for the individuals in the Cabinet but the country as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Opposition leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said that there are serious concerns that needed to be addressed and that it was early for him to discuss it since the Parliament session has not begun.

“The BBIN agreement was shelved for a reason. Unless the concerns are addressed, there is no way BBIN agreement must go through,” the opposition leader said.  

Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party’s vice president Sonam Tobgay took to Facebook to share his views. “The BBIN agreement should not be reconsidered for political gains but studied carefully beyond the luring protocols,” he wrote. 

At the Meet our PM session on December 7, foreign minister Dr Tandi Dorji had told the media that Bhutanese trucks were facing difficulties passing through Bangladesh and that it would be reconsidered. 

In November 2016, the National Council (NC) rejected the agreement after the House’s legislative committee found that the demerits of the agreement outweigh the benefits. The house found the agreement in conflict with national laws such as the Immigration Act.

The NC also stated that the agreement could affect the country’s culture, religion and economy and even pose security risks. The NC also said that Bhutan was not ready for the agreement since it did not have basic infrastructures such as bridges and integrated checkpoints required for implementation of the agreement.

When it left office, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said it was up to the incoming government to pursue the agreement, reiterating that it offered more opportunities than risks. The last government had said that Bhutan was able to negotiate for an arrangement where Bhutanese vehicles enter Nepal and Bangladesh whereas their vehicles would stop at the Bhutanese border. However, the government could not substantiate the claim. 

The agreement is however, based the principle of reciprocity. The main objective of the agreement is to facilitate seamless cross-border movement of passenger and cargo vehicles in the sub-region.

Those in favour of the agreement say that BBIN’s trade potential is a critical component of economic prosperity and sustainable development of the four countries. However, concerns about its impact on truck owners’ livelihood were raised.

Parliament cannot amend the BBIN agreement itself to address the concerns. Officials say, one of the ways in which Bhutan could earn preferential treatment in the implementation of the agreement is through deferment of the clause related to vehicles. 

The 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.” This means that vehicles will require a permit to ply through the other country.

In what could be objectionable for transport operators, the agreement provides for non-regular passenger vehicles to be permitted on a case-to-case basis for a period of up to 30 days. This, transporter operators fear, may kill their business.

Proponents of the agreement feel come of the clauses in the agreement empowers Bhutan to safeguard the country’s interests and to minimise the impacts. Vehicles from contracting countries, under the agreement, can ply only on the authorised routes. 

The agreement was deferred indefinitely by the previous Parliament. India, Bangladesh and Nepal have already ratified the agreement.

MB Subba