Crossing the borderThe motor vehicle agreement between Nepal, Bangladesh and India has potential—but it, unfortunately, may go the same route as SAARC.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal have signed a sub-regional Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) in June 2015 for the regulation of passenger, personal and cargo vehicular traffic between these four countries. This agreement will institutionally and physically accelerate the implementation of land transport facilitation arrangements and enable the exchange of traffic rights. It is expected to ease the cross-border movement of goods, vehicles, and people. This complementary instrument to the existing bilateral transport agreements would thereby help expand people-to-people contact, trade, and economic exchanges. The very first meeting of transport ministers of the BBIN countries, held in Bhutan in June 2015, bestowed the technical and facilitating role to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Despite a string of sub-regional transport projects under the ADB-supported South Asia Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC- 2002), a new initiative using the acronym BBIN primarily focusing on the Eastern South Asia sub-region was floated in 2015. What possibly triggered this sudden move towards sub-regionalism was the failure of the signing of a SAARC Motor Vehicle Agreement and SAARC Regional Railways Agreement in the 18th Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014. On this averted motor vehicle agreement triggered by Pakistan’s withdrawal syndrome, the Summit ‘agreed to hold a meeting of the Transport Ministers within three months in order to finalise the Agreements for approval’. Like any agenda dropped on the grounds of ‘no unanimity’, this agreement too could never be revived in the last six years. Knowing this, these four countries took a sub-regional route to accelerate cross-border transport facilitation. A similar sub-regional venture known as South Asia Growth Quadrangle was semi-officially planned but had failed in the late 1990s.
Bangladesh, India and Nepal have ratified the Agreement; demonstration runs of passenger and cargo services have been carried out. Despite the six-month work plan (July-December 2015) for the implementation of the BBIN, like a plethora of SAARC projects in the past, the MVA has also failed to take off. The Joint Working Group Meetings on Sub-Regional Cooperation between BBIN have not been held since its third meeting in Dhaka in January 2016. This meeting, in fact, discussed Water Resources Management and Power, and Connectivity and Transit, and decided that ‘the next meeting of the JWGs would be held in the second half of 2016 in India’. Yet, no meeting has taken place. This is somewhat like the trend observed in other regional groupings. This lacklustre performance of such a prized project is attributed to five factors.
Firstly, the Memorandum of Understating that would enable the implementation of the MVA among the three countries (Bangladesh, India and Nepal) has not been signed as yet. The delegates of these three countries last met (with Bhutan as an observer) in February 2020, where they agreed to consider expediting the finalisation of this memorandum without obligation to Bhutan.
Secondly, the Bhutanese National Council, the upper house of Tshogdu (National Assembly) did not ratify this Agreement on grounds of ‘flouting immigration laws’, ‘risking environment and security’, ‘too small to be swamped by the vehicles of three countries’. Hence Bhutan remains out of the purview of this sub-regional arrangement.
Thirdly, the complications and complexities of foreign vehicular and cargo movement at least in the 10 eastern-north eastern states of India, several districts of Nepal and 64 districts of Bangladesh are difficult to manage and negotiate at the sub-regional level as reflected in the protocols. The border management regimes are strikingly different, varying from open to porous to barbed-wire borders. For instance, there are serious constraints ranging from formalities, taxes, rest and recreation areas, laws and regulations, coordination and security between the states in India and inner line and restricted area permits in case of the North East region of India. The internal consultations among the stake-holders for the protocol for movement of passengers are still going on.
Fourthly, the installation of the prerequisites for implementing the approved agreements including IT systems, infrastructure, tracking, and regulatory systems remain far-off issues today. And finally, there are still some apprehensions with regard to safeguarding measures on ‘rights and obligations of all parties under other international agreements and bilateral agreements within the group, including those relating to landlocked countries’.
As soon as the MVA is fully implemented and member countries start harnessing the unlimited advantages, the BBIN could be expanded in the eastern front to include Myanmar. This could take the form of the BBIN-M Growth Rectangle. India and Myanmar are now thrashing out similar bilateral motor vehicle agreements. In the process, two bridges viz the North East region of India and Myanmar to South East and East Asia will be built and crossed to meaningfully integrate other sub-regionalism processes. Both ADB and Japan are already deeply engaged on both sides of this sub-regional geography and could be the institutional, investment and connectography pivots.
Besides facilitating varied land to land connectivity, this conglomeration will generate economies of scale, set up supply chains, establish cross-regional micro, small and medium enterprises and energy grids, attract investment and technology exchanges and develop projects strewn over the border and borderland communities. They can collectively manage disasters, monitor natural resources, and more importantly, it will lead to a market expansion—both for the manufacturing and services sectors. In another way, this Growth Rectangle could turn out to be a miniaturised, doubly-productive and more functional version of both SAARC and BIMSTEC.
However, this Growth Rectangle will have to address several primary concerns and first-level constraints. Will it become a formal sub-regional organisation incorporating in its agenda other crucial activities like investment, trade, tourism, infrastructure, water and energy? Unlike SAARC and BIMSTEC, could it be very specific project-oriented?
Will it allow Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal to have seamless access to connectivity linkages with the Southeast Asian countries, including the use of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and Sittwe port in Myanmar? Given the present shape, deprived authority and dismal delivery records of both SAARC and BIMSTEC Secretariats, are member countries amenable to locate the work office of this Growth Rectangle to or near the ADB headquarters in Manila?
Will India—in its foreign policy matrices—extend strategic incentives to these smaller states by co-opting them as partners in India’s Act East Policy? This to a certain extent could de-attract the Himalayan nations from their recent proclivity to look northwards. Amidst its Southeast Asian identity, affiliation and deeper connectivity with ASEAN and a far-reaching project like China-Myanmar Economic Corridor Cooperation plan initiated in 2019, how to bring Myanmar to this fold itself will itself be a formidable challenge.
How this Growth Rectangle could go beyond pledges and promises marred by consistent inaction, feeble political commitment and bureaucratic lethargy is an important question. Who would take the risk of crossing the Shakespearian allusion: ‘words, words, words; promises, promises, promises; tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’.
What do you think?
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