BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), a regional grouping of the South and Southeast Asian countries, was formed in 1997 with the aim of technological and economic cooperation between member states. The other areas of cooperation include tourism, human resource development, agriculture, fisheries, energy, poverty alleviation, transport, communication and more. The member states have also signed BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement (BFTAFA) to stimulate trade and investment in the region.
Twenty years on, the BIMSTEC countries now meet regularly to find ways to enhance development and cooperation. Only recently, the member states were seen engaging in mutual development projects. For example, India and Myanmar at the moment are expanding road and rail links along their borders as part of a project under BIMSTEC. Some member states are also connecting with each other through electricity grid. Coastal shipping, regional disaster monitoring and warning system are also on the agenda between the BIMSTEC member states. Still, the full potential of BIMSTEC has not been reached.
To identify the reasons that are holding the platform back from achieving its goals, one can look at the projects that are coming together. BIMSTEC has 14 priority areas for mutual development. Initiatives like communication and power supply have the capacity to influence other priority areas and bring about positive results. But, the ongoing projects are based mainly on bilateral terms between member states -- instead of involving the whole region.
The member countries are also part of other similar regional bodies like SAARC and ASEAN. Proper framework, willingness of the parties involved, time and funding are required alongside other active cooperation initiatives to reap benefit in this regard. Very recent developments that are likely to help mutual development of BIMSTEC countries include the establishment of BIMSTEC Secretariat in Dhaka in 2014 and the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Programme held in Goa in 2016.
It is estimated that BIMSTEC countries together can generate gross domestic product (GDP) worth about $4.0 trillion. This value can increase manifolds if BIMSTEC can enhance economic activities among the member states. Geographically, the region is linked by sea and road communications. Interconnectivity between the BIMSTEC member states through rail network, road and coastline can help by generating employment, communication and economic activities. This area of development will ultimately lead to higher economic growth for the nations involved resulting in higher GDP and income for all involved.
People in the region are making great strides in women empowerment, education, digital knowledge and poverty alleviation among other areas. Advancement in education, health and sanitation and poverty reduction through better economic activities can also raise the standard of living of people under the BIMSTEC member states.
The proposed free trade deal can also ensure better livelihood for the people involved. Shorter and cheaper trade routes among the countries can allow free movement of goods. There is scope to increase and expand existing bilateral and multilateral trading among the BIMSTEC countries. With an estimated population of close to 2.0 billion people together among the BIMSTEC member countries, the impact of trade can be phenomenal and mutually beneficial.
Also, there is a growing demand for electricity due to increasing economic activities in all BIMSTEC countries. All member nations require significant and steady supply of energy. Hence, there is scope for creation of an international electricity grid among BIMSTEC countries to ensure efficient and steady supply of power. Research has found that the BIMSTEC countries together have the potential to produce 300 Gigawatt of hydro-electricity. At present, the transfer of electricity from one BIMSTEC state to the other is happening bilaterally. Involvement of more nations in an international grid can ensure rapid economic development of the BIMSTEC countries.
Mutual cooperation among the member states can also be used to combat terrorism and drug trafficking. On the other hand, there are certain challenges that BIMSTEC is facing. All member states need to be on the same page in their efforts to make the platform successful. Also, more funding is needed from the member states to carry out the activities required to fulfil priorities. Lack of physical infrastructure for communication between the member states are driving up costs and time to transfer goods and services among the countries. Improvement of connectivity through use of coastal belts and physical infrastructure development is a must.
Reflection of the commitment of BIMSTEC leaders were observed during the 4th BIMSTEC Summit held at Kathmandu, Nepal on August 30 and 31. During the two-day event, leaders of BIMSTEC member states talked about various issues and potential.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her speech at the inaugural session stressed cooperation in free trade, investment and energy to meet people's demands in the region. She also emphasised on people-to-people contact to attain overall benefit for the region. PM Hasina also mentioned that security, counter-terrorism, disaster management and climate change are issues that the region presently face. She said security and stability can be incorporated as a new cluster in BIMSTEC to promote and protect regional harmony.
In his speech, Indian PM Narendra Modi identified terrorism, transnational crimes and drugs as issues that the BIMSTEC countries are facing. He emphasised on expansion of national knowledge network among the member states to increase digital connectivity among the countries.
There is renewed hope among the people of BIMSTEC member states as their leaders have agreed upon a deal to set up a cross-country energy grid at the Kathmandu Summit. The leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to work out a comprehensive mechanism to counter terrorism.
The new chairmanship was handed over to Sri Lanka from Nepal at the end of the 4th BIMSTEC Summit. At the end of the summit, the 18-point Kathmandu Declaration was signed by the BIMSTEC member states to facilitate and reap benefits from the group.
Many countries of the world have benefitted through groups like BIMSTEC by implementing free trade and connectivity among the members. Such platforms have helped nations attain greater economic growths and increase their GDPs. The people of the region hope that similar benefits will be extracted through BIMSTEC.
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