With Bhutan deferring its decision to join the Bhutan, Bangladesh India and Nepal (BBIN) motor vehicle agreement, bus services have been introduced between India and Bangladesh and Nepal.
Since the signing of the agreement, bus services have begun between Delhi and Kathmandu, Varanasi and Kathmandu, Kolkata and Dhaka and Guwahati and Dhaka.
Although Bhutan did not ratify the BBIN motor vehicle agreement, other areas of cooperation are being explored.
Areas such as trade and investment, connectivity, energy cooperation, tourism, culture, security and the way ahead were discussed during a young thinkers’ conference on BBIN-challenges and opportunities in Kolkata, India on November 8.
The conference was organised by Observer Research Foundation, a think tank in India in collaboration with British High Commision.
Vice consul of the Royal Bhutan Consulate General in Kolkata, Pema Tobgay in his introductory remarks, said that Bhutan is yet to complete its internal process and consultations on the motor vehicle agreement.
Expressing their interest to buy electricity from Bhutan, Shahab Enam Kham, research director of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute said BBIN should explore a mutually beneficial framework for cross-border power trading and that India must facilitate it, as transmission lines would pass through India.
With regard to trade, it was highlighted that intra-regional trade among SAARC member states comprise five percent of the total trade and that non-tariff barriers such as bureaucratic red tape, standards and customs procedures were identified as impeding factors.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Indian diplomat said that India would be willing to take a leadership role and contribute more than other countries. But, he said that India has host of issues to be resolved at home that member countries must understand. He said that BBIN is in line with India’s ‘neighborhood first’ foreign policy.
“India would give in 90 percent for the region but 10 percent should come from other members,” he said.
Since the region has a lot of Buddhist sites, tourism and cultural collaboration could give a boost to the economy.
Participants from member counties highlighted human trafficking and illegal immigration as issues hindering connectivity in the region.
A consultant representing Bhutan pointed out the hassles the Bhutanese truckers face while travelling through India.
Most speakers at the conference agreed that the region has tremendous potential, given the geography, population and market. It is however, not able to realise the potential because of political differences, trade barriers and trust deficit among the members.
Trust alone, Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty said is not going to integrate the region without action.
Digitisation, infrastructure, coordination and trust among others were identified as some of the areas, which could boost the regional growth.
A panelist from Bangladesh, Rahul Rana, pointed out that the acronym BBIN should stand for Better Build It Now. Most panelists agreed that there is a lack of trust among the countries in the region.
“It is time to reimagine our border based on connectivity,” Sujeev Shakya, an author from Nepal representing Nepal Economic Forum said. He said issues might arise because of porous borders, but the way forward is to address these issues through collaboration, consolidation and coordination rather than crying over spilt milk.
Integration of sub-regional market has been the primary aim of the BBIN project, with emphasis on power trading between the upstream and the energy scarce areas. However, poor intra-regional investment has made landlocked countries like Nepal and Bhutan more dependent on external trading opportunities. Free movement of cargo, private vehicles and people were deemed necessary to ease trade barriers and interconnectivity of grids.
In addition, the sub-region has shared a progressive economic unity, which is often characterised by suspicion and threats. The major part of panel discussion delved into India’s role since it is considered a regional heavyweight. With emerging security concerns along the border and along the BBIN economic corridor, a greater importance should be given to address the security issues.
While the BBIN concept was introduced in Bhutan from the myopic perspective of motor vehicle agreement, areas of collaboration include trade, investment, communication, tourism, energy security, connectivity in terms of not only roads but railways and airways, sharing of data and know-how, are yet to be explored through BBIN.
A part of the conference also discussed the role of BBIN in Asian politics and synergising land locked countries with India’s look east policy, through which the BBIN members can gain access to the southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Myanmar via road.
Tshering Dorji | Kolkata