BBIN: Even as it remains uncertain whether or not Bhutan’s Parliament will ratify a motor vehicle agreement involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN), experts and government officials from the sub-region have called for immediate implementation of the ambitious road connectivity plan.

The calls were made during a two-day BBIN conference organised by Kolkata-based think tank CUTS International from February 16 to 17 in the capital city of West Bengal. Overall, participants agreed that the agreement should be implemented despite the challenges.

Implementation of the agreement has been delayed as Bhutan has not yet ratified the agreement although it was inked more than one and a half years ago in June 2015. India, Bangladesh and Nepal have ratified the agreement, and are expected to go ahead with the plan by repackaging the agreement as BIN without Bhutan.

However, the Bhutanese government is determined to be part of this sub-regional group despite objections from the opposition and the National Council.

Information and communications secretary Dasho Karma Penjor and his predecessor Dasho Kinley Dorji took part in the conference. The secretary informed Kuensel that the other member countries asked him about Bhutan’s position on the motor vehicle agreement.

“We expressed Bhutan’s concerns with respect to the culture and environment,” he said. He said the agreement will be put to a vote in a joint sitting of the upcoming summer Parliament session.

According to a press release from CUTS International, Dasho Karma W Penjor informed the conference that “the political will in Bhutan was in favour of ratifying the pact”. He stated that steps were undertaken to demystify the various provisions of the agreement among different stakeholders in Bhutan.

The pact aims to allow seamless movement of vehicles across the four countries’ borders. The details of the rollout, including country specific restrictions on entry of vehicles, will be decided at a later stage in the protocols.

The National Assembly’s legislative committee chairperson MP Ritu Raj Chhetri said the agreement will provide platforms for negotiations in other areas of cooperation among the member countries. “It will open opportunities for economic development,” he said.

Supporters of the agreement believe that the agreement will accelerate economic development and integration in the sub-region. The region is one of the least integrated and connected regions of the world and intra-regional trade is around five percent of the total trade of South Asian countries.

The think tank believes that the connectivity agreement can be a game changer especially for land-linked countries like Nepal, Bhutan and states in North-East India. However, for effective implementation, it has to address a number of challenges to set the wheel rolling.

Two of the key challenges include lack of facilitating infrastructure coupled with lack of financial capacity of the countries to support development of infrastructure and harmonisation of procedures for transits. In addition, there are also significant challenges pertaining to land acquisition, concerns of transport operators, gender concerns, and differences in the mindsets of people.

The National Council has rejected the agreement, citing environment concerns and lack of road and infrastructure capacity to handle huge volumes of cargo and passengers.

Pushing the agreement through Parliament is not the final hurdle for the government. Unlike in the other three countries, Bhutan’s Parliament must also ratify protocols that will prescribe the details on the implementation part. The protocols are currently being drafted.

“The need of the hour is to get over the ‘big country and small country syndrome’, move forward and implement the agreement, which will have tremendous implication for growth and development of BBIN,” stated the think tank.

Speaking at the conference, India’s deputy secretary of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highway, AD James, said some of the initiatives that the government of India is presently undertaking to facilitate effective implementation of the agreement include expansion of road networks, development of logistical hubs with state of art facilities along major economic corridors.

Former governor of the Bangladesh Bank and professor of Dhaka University, Atiur Rahman, emphasised the need to develop regional financial institutions and chalk out other strategies such as public-private partnership models to facilitate funding for developing facilitating infrastructures.

The joint secretary of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Commerce Badrul Hassan Babul, underlined the need for greater trade facilitation among countries in the BBIN region through the MVA.

The joint secretary of India’s Department of Commerce, Bhupinder Singh Bhalla, emphasised the need to look beyond economic benefits and consider the important role that motor vehicle agreement will play in mainstreaming development for the land linked states in North-East India. He said the agreement will give easier access to the maritime ports in Bangladesh.

The Indian Commissioner for Customs and Export Promotion, Sandeep Kumar, pointed out that the region can save USD 2 billion by developing land ports and an electronic cargo tracking system but issues like land acquisition, access to electricity and IT tools severely limits the options.

The US Consul General in Kolkata, Craig Hall, said there is a need for enhancing intra-regional trade among countries in the South and Southeast Asian countries by sharing resources and removing various trade barriers.

The executive director of the think tank, Bipul Chatterjee, said that the agreement can yield concrete benefits for the common man. He mentioned that the pact is not only significant in terms of improvement of land ports but also from the point of view of development of economic corridors which is indispensable for trade facilitation.

CUTS International will be implementing a project over a period of two and a half years to not only explain the benefits of the agreement but to also help in addressing the concerns at the grassroots level that might act as a barrier against attaining the objectives of the regional pact.

MB Subba