Indra Mani Pandey, secretary-general of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), is in Bhutan for a four-day introductory visit after being appointed as the new secretary-general since January 4, 2024. Our reporter Jigmi Wangdi’s conversation with Mani Pandey is here in Q&A format.

Bimstec has always looked into the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) since 2004. However, it has not yet been implemented. Why?

The progress in FTA has certainly not lived up to the expectations. But let’s be hopeful for the future that we will be able to make more progress because all the member states recognised that they need to move the Bimstec cooperation towards more trade and investment within the region so that the member states can benefit from the progress that other countries in the region have made and that is how the entire region will be able to move forward collectively. 

The Block Charter for Nepal and Bhutan (for landlocked countries) has not yet seen any tangible benefit for the two countries. Why?

I think that the decision when Bhutan and Nepal both took in 2004 to join bimstec, in itself signified that though they are not a literal state of the Bay of Bengal, they would benefit from the regional cooperation among the seven countries. I think Bhutan will benefit from cooperation with all these countries through a regional framework. Connectivity has been a very important area for bimstec and I think all the countries will benefit from it. Even in the energy sector, one of the areas where member states have been focusing their attention on is interconnecting the grids. Again, there is that expectation among the member states that they would all benefit from the interconnection of their electricity and that will also help them transition to green energy which all the member states are under obligations to follow.

Bhutan ratified the bimstec Charter last year, marking a significant commitment to regional cooperation. How do you envision this ratification impacting Bhutan’s role and contribution within bimstec, and what specific initiatives are planned to enhance collaboration, particularly in the context of economic growth and regional integration? 

It was a very important development because all the member states were required to ratify the Charter.It is now recognised globally as a regional organisation. The Charter also allows us to welcome observers and even new member states and it allows bimstec to enter into bilateral partnerships with countries regional or international, allowing engagement in external cooperation. We have been engaging in cooperation before the Charter was ratified. But now the Charter provides us with the road map which we need.  It influences our vision for regional cooperation and it also specifies certain rules and ways of functioning for bimstec in the future. So, with the enforcement of the Charter, we will be able to have more and better cooperation.  

One of bimstec’s key focus areas is environmental sustainability. How can Bhutan’s efforts in environmental conservation and sustainability be integrated into broader bimstec initiatives to address regional environmental challenges? 

Climate change and its impact is an area of cooperation which is of very high importance within the region because we are all painfully aware of the impact of climate change and the challenges that we face, both in terms of mitigation and in terms of adaptation to climate change including management of disaster which we have been witnessing more often in the past few years alone. 

Environment and climate change is a sector of cooperation where Bhutan takes the lead. It is a new area of cooperation. So far, we have had two meetings of the joint working group on environment and climate change and some plans have been negotiated and adopted. The priority areas are biodiversity, dealing with the impact of climate change and also waste management which is related to the protection of the environment. However, there is a comprehensive action plan and member states are looking at the initiatives in each of the action plans for cooperation at the regional level. In the coming months and years, we will see initiatives coming from Bhutan and from other members, to carry forward the cooperation. 

Given the diverse cultural heritage of the bimstec member countries, how do you envision cultural exchanges and tourism between Bhutan and other member states?

When it comes to people-to-people connectivity Nepal is the lead member state. Areas of cooperation in that include both culture and tourism. They have been kept together because there is an integral need for cultural and tourism cooperation. I think all the member states will benefit from more tourism starting from within the region and also cooperation in attracting tourism from outside the region. If we look at our population of 1.8 billion people, there is a huge potential for tourism from within the region. Also, if we look at our shared cultural heritage, our history and historical monuments it could be of interest to our people to tour within the region. There is a network of tour operators who have been meeting regularly, they have already met three times. There has been a focus on creating some regional circuits for the tourists encouraging them to go from one country to another while also facilitating for guests from outside. This is potentially a very huge area of cooperation which will benefit the members and it’s given a lot of priority. 

There are proposals to hold cultural festivals, music festivals and film festivals under the bimstec banner so that people can be associated more with bimstec, particularly our youth who are not even aware of bimstec. To make them more aware, there are also proposals to hold youth conclaves, to bring the youth from seven member states together. As I mentioned, in the coming months and years you will see more cooperation between bimstec members in different areas of people-to-people relations.