Regional connectivity has to be based on a wider canvas linking Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar by road, rail, water and air, if it is to deliver desired outcomes, following a multimodal concept that promises greater socioeconomic benefits. The need for switching over to multimodal transport-based linkages comes here into a sharp focus, in order to facilitate a new paradigm shift in regional and sub-regional cooperation.
Experts attending the 'India-Bangladesh Friendship Dialogue: Seventh Round' held in the city early this week saw a win-win situation for the deals in energy and power sectors between India and Bangladesh. But they also laid emphasis on extending the cooperation to embrace Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar in the process for reaping the benefits of the resource endowment that the region as a whole enjoys.
The concept of greater regional connectivity, as analysts suggest, rises above bilateralism in the sphere of cooperation in trade and business, and people-to-people contact. Connectivity in the present context could be established through cooperation in digitising comparatively disadvantageous parts of the region for greater benefits for larger segments of the population.
This region can certainly make efforts to harness a large potential in air connectivity for cargo and passenger movement with northern India and Myanmar. Enhancing the connectivity between India and Bangladesh through rail to establish link under Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) can also be considered one of the catalysts for moving ahead with multimodal ways of transportation for common benefits.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh's exports to India still face hurdles as its merchandise is yet to be given duty-free and quota-free facility there. India often imposes non-tariff and para-tariff barriers on goods originating from Bangladesh. Due to such non-tariff barriers, cost of trade with India is higher than that with Hong Kong. Also, cooperation in energy and free movement of transit traffic from Bangladesh to north-eastern states of India is yet to gather pace.
Furthermore, Bangladesh is also having complexities on visa issue. This is restricting people-to-people connectivity. The country requested the Indian side to issue uniform visa for using all land ports. It is now pursuing New Delhi for high-level talks to resolve outstanding issues over trade and energy cooperation. Political commitment of the Indian government is very much necessary to end such long-lasting practice of discouraging export from Bangladesh, according to observers.
Nevertheless, Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to take advantage of its location in the eastern sub-region of South Asia. It can be a centre-point of different initiatives that seek to connect BBIN with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bangladesh-India-China-Myanmar (BICM) cooperation arrangement, and also with other East Asian countries. With deeper trade, investment and connectivity linkages within the sub-region, Bangladesh can benefit from new markets, new import sources of high-quality and better priced products, increasing opportunities for transport and logistics services. Increased trade will contribute directly to investment and job creation in manufacturing, agriculture as well as services.
However, there are many challenges that might impede successful implementation of the BBIN. These are capacity constraint, coordination problem, and lack of policy support. Significant implementation capacity and knowledge support are required for all the participating countries. For this matter, coordination challenges, both internally within countries and regionally across borders, will have to be addressed meticulously. The BBIN countries need to coordinate at both the political level and the technical one. Also, new initiatives are required to be taken to harmonise trade policies and quality standards and attract foreign investment from within the region.
The World Bank (WB), to mention, has some projects under implementation as well as in the pipeline in support of regional connectivity in all these four countries. In Bangladesh, the WB is preparing a connectivity project on inland waterways as well as a regional connectivity project that will support road and multi-modal connectivity efforts.
All the four member countries under the sub-regional deal will require to give equal importance to investment, especially in terms of infrastructure and other developments. Otherwise, they will not get equal benefit from the regional connectivity. Regional connectivity is essential for Bangladesh to attain its plus 7.0 per cent annual GDP growth target.
For deepening South Asian integration, the role of the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) is quite important to establish seamless multi-modal connectivity to facilitate movement of vehicles and goods, cars and passengers bilaterally. However, benefit-sharing principles for determining tolls and tariffs, establishing monitoring committees for implementation oversight and designing widely accepted implementation modalities will have to be put in place, also, to produce win-win outcomes.
The MVA is, nevertheless, a landmark deal for regional integration. It is appreciated by all concerned that political will of the leaders in all the four countries is vital to make it effective. What is striking is that all these countries have geographical contiguity and share identical political and cultural history. Moreover, they have common developmental challenges.
Besides the motor vehicle deal, Bangladesh is moving forward for forging transit agreements with Bhutan, Nepal and India, both at bilateral and multilateral levels. Negotiations with regional member countries are in progress to establish a meaningful connectivity regime in South Asia.
In a hyper-connected, fast-evolving world, connectivity is certain to contribute more than anything else to realising the common aspirations of the peoples of this region for peace, stability, and prosperity.