New Delhi: India could go ahead with the implemention a sub-regional connectivity project with just Bangladesh and Nepal, with Bhutan finding it difficult to get parliamentary approval for a pact that would have boosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neighbourhood first foreign policy.
India has been a strong votary of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) connectivity project mainly to show that South Asian countries are in favour of regional connectivity and that it is Pakistan that has been playing the spoiler in the physical integration of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or Saarc grouping.
The BBIN project was conceived when Saarc at its 18th Summit in Kathmandu failed to sign a Saarc Motor Vehicles Agreement in November 2014—chiefly because of Pakistan. Saarc comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, who traded among themselves goods and services worth $20 billion in 2013-14, a 12.36% rise over the previous year.
But India’s plan seem to have hit a stumbling block with Bhutan unable to get the necessary parliamentary ratification to implement the Motor Vehicles Agreement that would see the movement of trucks among the four BBIN countries.
Three people familiar with the matter confirmed that Bhutan had conveyed to the Indian government that Bangladesh, India and Nepal should press ahead with the road connectivity project to facilitate the seamless movement of vehicles within the region. “This is because Bhutan’s upper house of Parliament is unable to ratify the pact due to opposition parties taking an unrelenting position. There does not seem to be support for the pact in the upper house," said one of the people cited above.
Truckers in Bhutan were also worried about a possible loss of business if trucks from neighbouring countries rolled in, said a second person familiar with the matter. “The opposition parties have seized on this fear of the truck owners and drivers and are using this to stall the pact in Parliament," said the second person cited above. “There is a proposal to see whether trucks can come up to the border (Phuntsholing) and then the goods ferried into Bhutan using Bhutanese trucks. That is being examined," the second person said.
There have also been worries that Bhutan—the smallest country in the four nation grouping—will have to face environmental pollution problems if trucks were allowed from other countries.
After Bhutan’s upper house, the National Council, rejected the bill in November, the only way to get parliamentary approval for the BBIN pact was to table the draft at a joint sitting of both houses. A joint parliamentary panel was formed and tasked with finding common ground.
But a report in Bhutan’s Kuensel news website said that the parliamentary panel had a meeting on 20 April in which it failed to arrive at a compromise solution. “It was after this that Bhutan informed India about its inability to join the pact immediately and that the three countries—Bangladesh, Nepal and India should go ahead with the project with Bhutan joining in later," said the second person cited above.
“India is now examining the possibility of working with Bangladesh and Nepal to implement the BBIN," said the second official cited above.
According to Prabir De, a professor at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) think tank in New Delhi, “Since Bhutan is not joining at the moment, the routes that were initially planned for vehicular movement will have to be amended. There are some other changes also to be made. These could take some four or five months. So that’s the time period we are looking for implementation of the BIN."