BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement – A Step Towards South Asian Connectivity

Motor Vehicle

Regional associations augment trade, enhance people-to-people contact and help to establish a strong diplomatic relation between the member nations.In the global arena, we have been witnessing numerous regional associations, be it the European Union in Europe, the ASEAN in South East Asia or the SAARC in South Asia.The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), formed in 1983, pledged in its very first meeting to eradicate terrorism from the international circuit. However, quite ironically, it was this issue of ‘terrorism’ which caused dissensions within the association – primarily between India and Pakistan, and eventually handicapped the organization. Although SAARC as an organization became redundant in the present world scenario, the member states, namely – India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, agreed upon a new initiative- to bring about greater regional cooperation between the countries.

BBIN (Bangladesh,Bhutan,India,Nepal) is a sub-regional initiative with the vision to improve regional connectivity and cooperation among the South Asian Countries. It will not be incorrect to state that BBIN is an offshoot of SAARC. The BBIN initiative will enable countries in the eastern flank of India which share land borders to carry out seamless movement of cargo and containers. This initiative will help these developing countries to integrate more into the global economy thereby help them to be a part of global value chains (GVCs).

During the 18th SAARC Summit held at Kathmandu in November 2014, the association had proposed a SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA),which would enable vehicles to freely enter the SAARC nations without trans-shipment of goods from one truck to another at the borders.The primary reason behind the initiation of this agreement was to improve trade among the SAARC nations and also to enhance intra-regional connectivity. This agreement could not be successful because of Pakistan’s disapproval of the MVA. However, the plan did not fade away and gave birth to the regional initiative of BBIN.

In June 2015 the MVA was presented at the BBIN Transport Ministers Meeting at Thimpu (Bhutan) with the aim of regulating passengers, personnel and cargo amongst the BBIN countries. A successful MVA would lead to a cost-effective and environmentally-sound road transport in the region. It would also boost economic development through greater cross-border movement of passenger and goods. The cost of implementation of the initiative would be borne by the individual countries, each utilizing its own resources.The Asian Development Bank (ADB) under the SASEC (South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation) would play a key role in the progress of the project.The SASEC, which was established in 2001, includes the South Asian countries of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka as the members. The SASEC promotes the development of transport, trade, energy and the facilitation of the economic corridor in the region. The ADB serves as the Secretariat for the SASEC countries. A total of 30 road projects worth $8 billion to upgrade the connectivity areas in the BBIN region have been identified by the ADB.

There are several reasons behind India’s willingness to implement the project. Firstly, the MVA will strengthen politico-economic relations between India and her neighbours – Bangladesh,Bhutan and Nepal. Secondly, it will promote connectivity in the relatively underdeveloped North-Eastern Region in India, and thus maximise prospects of development by ensuring utilization of resources. India already has two sub-regional MVAs with Bangladesh and Nepal, but the BBIN MVA is a unique connectivity model.The BBIN MVA will allow the exchange of traffic rights and ease cross-border movement of goods,vehicles and people, thereby promoting both trade and tourism.The initiative will reduce transportation cost and facilitate multi-modal transport and transit facilities.

The BBIN MVA initiative will also lead to considerable development of the North-eastern region of India. India’s Northeast Region (NER) and West Bengal link with Eastern neighbouring nations such as Bangladesh. The NER includes the eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland,Sikkim and Tripura. Before the Partition of India, the NER was connected with the rest of India through the present day Bangladesh. Post partition,the set-up was disrupted and NER became a land locked territory. It is now connected with India through the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ or the Siliguri Corridor.The connectivity bottlenecks have made the region practically underdeveloped and politically volatile. However, the geographical location of the NER makes it a focal point through which India can carry out trade with its neighbours. NER shares its borders with China in the North, Bangladesh in the South West, Bhutan in the North West and Myanmar in the East.The location of NER not only serves as an important link with the ASEAN countries but also with India’s neighbours such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. If the BBIN MVA is implemented successfully, the scope for development of the North-eastern region will be widened.

Although the BBIN MVA initiative superficially seems like a beneficial developmental plan, it suffers from several challenges.Firstly, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are developing countries having unstable economic conditions.These countries do not have the adequate infrastructure which are immensely necessary for the success of the MVA. Expertise in areas of information technology, mapping of disaster zones, having efficient disaster management teams for quick response and recovery, are still lacking in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Secondly, once the agreement is finally implemented, the influx of refugees to Eastern India is likely to affect the internal and border security. There should be strengthening of laws to keep a check on narcotic trade, smuggling of weapons and vehicles.Thirdly, Indian citizens are not required to obtain visa or visa-on-arrival to visit Bhutan or Nepal. However, Indians are required to obtain a prior visa before visiting Bangladesh. The issue of visas needs to be dealt with prior to the seamless movement of vehicles. Fourthly, the agreement states that passenger and cargo vehicles must have an insurance policy but the policies of Nepal and Bhutan are not recognized by Bangladesh.This will raise the issue of multiple documents, which in no way promotes seamless transportation.

In the current scenario, the BBIN MVA has been ratified by the governments of India,Bangladesh and Nepal. Bhutan’s National Assembly (Lower House) had forwarded the MVA bill to the National Council (Upper House) with the motive of ratifying it. However, protests from the opposition over environmental concerns of increasing vehicular pollution has led to the bill being rejected.The government faced sharp questions regarding the number of vehicles that would be allowed into the country via the Southern trading point of Phuentsholing and Bhutan’s road capacities.

On a wider perspective,the BBIN MVA has the capability of linking South Asia with South East Asia thereby enhancing connections and improving relations with the Association for South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).Therefore, to ensure greater inter-regional cooperation, it is imperative for the BBIN MVA to be implemented successfully in the subsequent years and to strengthen the mutual relationship between the BBIN countries.

– Contributed by Rajeshwari

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