Is BBIN MVA a non-starter?

Rahman Jahangir | Published: December 04, 2015 22:49:29 | Updated: October 23, 2017 11:36:29


As expected, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) is set to grind to a halt. Sadly, it's again bilateral political dispute that has found its way into the four-nation sub-regional connectivity project, conceived in a region still torn by misunderstanding, internecine strife and self-interest. The sub-group has still failed to get a formal shape and none still knows what its nomenclature is and where its secretariat is located. The entire venture has been floated in the way a cart is to be driven by a horse from behind, not from the front!     
The whole exercise, done in utter haste for reasons best known to the BBIN sponsors, leaves many valid questions unanswered. As ground realities were ignored in launching the cooperative venture, the much-vaunted car rally that Dhaka witnessed this week exposed many holes in it. Although all the four countries were represented in the car rally, the Indian team was without any government official in it although as reports have it, it was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had mooted the concept. But there was none in Dhaka to explain this.   
While speaking at a seminar marking the car rally's arrival in the capital, Road, Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader called for a 'borderless connectivity' with Bhutan, India and Nepal to 'achieve fruit of the transport corridor' among these countries. "We have to demolish borders and remove suspicions," he said. "There can be some gaps, but let's build greater connectivity removing those challenges." The programme was titled 'Enhancing Regional Connectivity: Status of Infrastructure in Bangladesh', ahead of the corridor's commercial passage soon. But then the minister should have known that such a borderless connectivity is not his cup of tea. Such connectivity without any border is a very sensitive issue which can only be tackled by the highest political leaders of the four countries involved in the venture. After all, the border is now fenced!
The minister should have first met top leaders of Bangladesh's business community to know how bitter it was for them to enter markets of neighbouring countries. While getting visas is a Herculean task for common people for whom the BBIN MVA is supposed to be a blessing, tariff and non-tariff barriers imposed in various forms simply drive entrepreneurial life out of them when they venture to sell their goods. The minister must not have forgotten why the Banglabandha land port remained useless for so many years after it was built for connectivity with Nepal. Only traders know what hindered them in using the land port.       
Even the technical committees of the BBIN on two protocols of the MVA in their meeting in Dhaka could not fix the fees for using road corridors. Reports have it that the Indian side proposed free movement of passengers and personal vehicles and fees for goods vehicles only. Bangladesh, however, favoured imposition of fees for all types of vehicles -- lower for passengers and personal vehicles but higher for freight. The first meeting discussed the issues of permitting and tracking vehicles, completing customs and immigration smoothly and ensuring security. It was agreed that all vehicles to be permitted for operating in the BBIN region will have a passport or identification and will have to deposit bank guarantee. During the two-day discussion, all the countries agreed that the fees would be uniform and the amount should not hamper the spirit of the connectivity initiative. But one wonders why the BBIN MVA is needed at all if people of the four member-states fail to travel as they wish and drop wherever they like. Why can't businessmen carry cargoes without any hindrance after making due payments?  
Both Nepal and Bhutan are yet to ratify the BBIN MVA. The car rally did not go to Nepal citing security reasons along the border but sources said the Himalayan kingdom was excluded as India has imposed an unofficial blockade on it over constitutional issues. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has already offered use of one airport and two seaports to Nepal to facilitate essential supplies effectively blocked by India. It is still doubtful whether Bangladesh would be allowed to help Nepal.   
Bhutan appears to be very cautious. Its parliament reportedly sent back a bill for ratification of the BBIN MVA for review of what gains Thimpu would get from such a deal. The Bhutanese government acted wisely in so doing as all countries must assess benefits of regional or international deals they are to sign and implement. It is not yet known whether Bangladesh made such a study before it signed the accord as Nepal and Bhutan offer little for the country in terms of exports. Bangladeshi goods for these two countries will never be competitive in view of easy access of cheaper Indian products to these bordering countries at much more duty relief. Even Bangladesh will have to have Delhi's concurrence if it wants to import hydro-power from Bhutan across its territory.  There is still time for Bangladesh to see whether it will be in a win-win situation as critics hinted that the venture is solely targeted to serve northeastern states of India under the guise of the BBIN MVA. 
The BBIN MVA is a partial version of one of three planned accords set to be given go-ahead in last year's SAARC summit. But due to intransigence of a single member-state, the three decisions could not be taken through a mandatory consensus. The three draft agreements were the Motor Vehicles Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger and Cargo Vehicular Traffic among SAARC member-states, SAARC Regional Railways Agreement and SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation (Electricity). Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was aware of difference of views among the eight SAARC members on these burning issues. That was why she had sought, during the Kathmandu summit, active support from other countries for implementation of regional connectivity by putting aside their differences in a bid to increase intra-regional trade. Physical connectivity is important in ensuring overall peace, progress and stability across South Asia, she had said at the inaugural ceremony of the 18th Saarc Summit at City Hall in the Nepalese capital.
Sheikh Hasina had spelt out her vision of connectivity in the region. She made it clear that Bangladesh approaches connectivity in a wider context as it believes in connecting ideas, knowledge, technology, culture, people, road-rail-air, movement of goods, services and investment. Along with the early signing of the regional MVA, she had pleaded for Regional Railways Agreement. She even urged all SAARC leaders to lend their support to advance implementation of the agreed regional outcomes on connectivity. Sheikh Hasina, if briefed by experts, will surely re-examine the BBIN MVA if it turns out to be a bilateral affair at long last if Bhutan and Nepal say goodbye to the project for some reasons. Then the BBIN MVA will be reduced to only BI MVA which is already in place.  
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