Bhutan’s announcement that it is unable to proceed with the Motor Vehicles Agreement with Bangladesh, India and Nepal is a road block, and not a dead end, for the regional sub-grouping India had planned for ease of access among the four countries.
The sub-grouping, BBIN as it is referred to, was an alternative mooted by the government after Pakistan rejected the MVA at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014. It seeks to allow trucks and other commercial vehicles to ply on one another’s highways to facilitate trade. Of the other SAARC members, Sri Lanka and the Maldives are not connected by land, and Afghanistan could only be connected if Pakistan was on board.
Down to just three countries now after Thimphu’s decision, India, Nepal and Bangladesh will have to decide whether to wait for Bhutan to reconsider or to press ahead with a truncated ‘BIN’ arrangement.
The first option will not be easy. The main concern expressed by Bhutanese citizen groups and politicians is over increased vehicular and air pollution in a country that prides itself on ecological consciousness. The upper house of parliament has refused to ratify the MVA that was originally signed by all four BBIN countries in 2015, and the official announcement indicates that Thimphu will not push the agreement ahead of elections in 2018.
Despite the setback, New Delhi must persevere with its efforts. To begin with, Bhutan’s objections are environmental, not political, and its government may well change its mind as time goes by. Dry runs have been conducted along the routes, and officials estimate the road links could end up circumventing circuitous shipping routes by up to 1,000 km.
Second, Bhutan’s concerns may be assuaged if India considers the inclusion of waterways and riverine channels as a less environmentally damaging substitute. Perhaps, Bhutan’s objections may even spur an overhaul of emission standards for trucks currently plying in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Above all, the BBIN pact denotes a “can-do” attitude on India’s part, as it shows a willingness to broaden its connectivity canvas with all countries willing to go ahead at present, leaving the door open for those that may opt to join in the future.
A similar initiative for the Asian Highway project under the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) corridor got a boost this week as the countries moved to upgrade the dialogue to the governmental level.
Although India has refused to attend China’s Belt and Road summit on May 14-15, objecting to projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the BCIM will remain a way of joining the network when India’s concerns are met. Connectivity is the new global currency for growth and prosperity as it secures both trade and energy lines for countries en route, and India must make the most of its geographic advantages.