While several regions of the world have succeeded in forging meaningful partnerships, South Asia could not do so for long largely due to historical and political differences. But at a time when the developing nations are making concerted efforts to integrate their markets with the fastest growing economies by improving connectivity, South Asian countries can not remain mute spectators to the breakthroughs achieved in the arena of trade and cooperation in their neighbourhood.
In a significant development, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) inked a Motors Vehicles Agreement (MVA) for seamless movement of people and goods among four South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries in Thimphu. The agreement seeks to regulate cross-border movement of passenger, personal and commercial vehicles though roadways among four South Asian neighbours. The larger objective of the landmark pact is to accentuate the pace of regional integration in South Asia and its economic development.
The four nations need to engage in further negotiations to finalise numerous technical aspects related to the BBIN MVA. The commercial vehicles will be allowed to ply only through specific transport corridors. The BBIN members have to identify the routes and reach a common ground on standard operating procedures.
The routes which are likely to be used as transport corridors include: Samdrup Jonhkar-Guwahati-Shillong-Tamabil-Sylhet-Chittagong, Thimphu-Phuentsholing-Jaigaon-Burimari-Mongla/ Chittagong, Kathmandu-Kakarvita/Phulbari-Banglabandha-Mongla, Silchar-Sutarkandi-Paturia-Benapole, Petrapole-Kolkata, Agartala-Akhaura-Chittagong.
All the four countries vowed to undertake a six-month work plan from July to December 2015 for implementation of the agreement. The transport ministers of these countries decided to operationalise the pact in a phased manner from October this year. It was also agreed in the meeting that a “BBIN Friendship Motor Rally” would be organised in the same month to highlight sub-regional connectivity and scope and opportunities for enhancing people-to-people contacts and trade under the BBIN MVA.
The agreement is a complimentary instrument to the existing pacts or protocols at the bilateral levels. The BBIN framework recognises each other’s motor vehicles acts, driving licenses and vehicle registration. Reports suggest that the countries are about to sign bilateral or trilateral or quadrilateral agreements specifying details, for example, the quantity of commercial or private vehicles which will be allowed to operate on a reciprocal basis, entry and exit points, routes, types of permit, custom related issues, and fees to make the treaty operational. The pact will be reviewed in every three years or earlier on consensus.
International donor agency like Asian Development Bank (ADB) is also playing a supportive role to boost sub-regional trade and connectivity. The ADB, which has been involved in the upgradation of transport networks in South Asia under the South Asia Sub-regional Economic programme, provided technical assistance in preparing the BBIN MVA. It has pledged to finance 30 priority transport connectivity projects worth $ 8 billion in the next five years to upgrade connectivity in the BBIN region.
In order to realise regional integration, South Asia has to undertake comprehensive measures aimed at removing the prevailing infrastructural bottlenecks and trade barriers. It is heartening to note that the four countries demonstrated sufficient political will in Thimphu to bring the South Asian nations closer by improving cross-border connectivity. Addressing the BBIN Transport Ministers’ Conference, India’s Nitin Gadkari underscored the need to upgrade roads, railways, waterways infrastructure, energy Grids, communications and air links to ensure smooth flow of goods, services, capital, technology and people across the borders.
Signing of the BBIN agreement is considered an important breakthrough in augmenting regional connectivity. According to experts, the BBIN initiative has been designed to facilitate safe, economically viable and environment-friendly road transport in the sub-region and help the four countries to build an institutional mechanism for regional integration. Cross-border movement of people and goods will contribute towards overall economic development of the region.
Operationalisation of an efficient transport network in the region, as envisaged under the BBIN framework, is bound to create win-win situation for all the four nations. The agreement is hugely beneficial for landlocked Himalayan nations such as Nepal and Bhutan. As per provisions of the agreement, both the countries will have easy access to ports in India and Bangladesh for exporting goods. Nepalese and Bhutanese commercial vehicles could now carry locally produced items all the way to Dhaka and bring back goods like ready-made garments. Bhutan, which generally exports perishable commodities to Bangladesh, stands to gain immensely from the pact.
The agreement also opens up many possibilities for Bangladesh. Once it becomes operational, Bangladeshis could easily travel directly to India, Nepal and Bhutan in their personal cars or by bus. Currently, India and Bangladesh have a bilateral arrangement on passenger movement. With this new agreement, Bangladeshi trucks and private cars could travel up to Nepal and Bhutan via India. Bangladesh is about 100 km away from Nepal and Bhutan and the BBIN pact is a potential game changer in terms of boosting trade, investment and tourism in the region.
Bangladesh, whose trade with India, Nepal and Bhutan has been steadily growing over the last few years, hopes that the BBIN MVA will actually start functioning from early next year in a limited scale. Country’s Road Transport and Bridges Minister, Obaidul Quader noted that the agreement paves the “way for a European Union-like road communication system among the four countries”.
Improvement of Bangladesh’s transport infrastructure for which India recently granted fresh $ 2 billion soft loan is set to increase volume of trade and investment in the country. Bangladesh’s strategic location and unique topography could make it a land bridge between South Asia and economically vibrant Southeast Asia.
Similarly, the BBIN initiative offers historic opportunities for India to develop economically isolated and landlocked North Eastern states. The deal enables the regions eight provinces to carry goods through Bangladesh’s territory. The BBIN MVA ensures North East’s integration with India’s mainland via road links in Bangladesh and connects the region to open seas and international markets through ports like Chittagong and Mongla. The connectivity deals clinched between India and Bangladesh during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka on June 6-7 will add further impetus to regional integration.
Greater engagement with the neighbouring countries through improvement of cross-border connectivity has been an integral part of the Modi Government’s “Act East” policy. New Delhi seeks to expand both intra-regional and inter-regional trade, investment and people-to-people relations as it believes that progress and economic development in India’s neighbourhood are inter-linked.
India is ready to ink similar motor vehicles agreement with Myanmar and Thailand to integrate its underdeveloped North East with the economic power houses of ASEAN. The strategic 3,200 km-long India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which is scheduled to become operational soon, will bring about sea change in regional connectivity.
Being a key signatory to the BBIN MVA, India is expected to shoulder bigger responsibility to materialise regional integration in South Asia. The BBIN members should also cooperate with each other to amicably settle trade and transport related issues at the earliest. Many believe that the BBIN initiative will transform border roads into economic corridors which could potentially increase intra-regional trade within South Asia by almost 60% and with the rest of the world by over 30%.
Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst based in New Delhi, India, and focuses on issues related to India-Bangladesh relations, insurgency, infrastructure development, and regional connectivity in North-East India.
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