Where does Bangladesh stand?
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) jointly signed a Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) in Thimphu on June 15 and formulated a six-month plan to implement the deal, which will allow the movement of cargo and passenger vehicles among these four countries. The deal will open up the sub-region in an unprecedented scale for investment, trade, people-to people contact which will have multiplier positive effects on the sub-region.
Transforming transport routes into economic corridors could potentially increase intraregional trade within South Asia by almost 60 percent and with the rest of the world by over 30 percent, according to experts. At present, intra-trade among the four nations is less than 5 percent while within ASEAN it is 32 percent, 50 percent within European Union, and 68 percent in the US-Canada-Mexico trade bloc (NAFTA).
The deal includes a time-table for formalisation of the BBIN MVA. The protocols are to be signed by August, preparation of bilateral (and perhaps trilateral/quadrilateral) agreements/ protocols for implementation of the deal by July, negotiation and approval of these agreements by September and installation of the prerequisites for implementing the approved agreements by December and staged implementation from October.
A BBIN friendship motor rally is planned for October to highlight the sub-regional connectivity and the scope and opportunities for greater people-to-people contact and trade under the BBIN initiative.
Many transportation experts believe that the timetable for implementation of the agreement by six months is too inadequate because existing infrastructure needs to be vastly improved and it may take not months but years.
The MVA deal is apparently very attractive but the devil is, however, in details. Certain conditions in the agreement such as cabotage restriction to transportation of goods, requirement of English or local language (Hindi, Nepalese and Bhutanese language) speaking Bangladeshi drivers and installation of vehicle tracking system would be impediments to Bangladesh, say experts.
Cabotage restriction means that Bangladeshi trucks may move to Bhutan, India and Nepal with Bangladeshi goods but cannot pick up Indian, Bhutanese or Nepalese goods on their way back to Bangladesh. That means Bangladeshi trucks have to return empty. The other two conditions, namely Bangladeshi drivers who are skilled in English or local languages, and installation of a vehicle tracking system may also be disadvantageous for Bangladesh.
The question is whether it is profitable for Bangladeshi trucks owners to use their vehicles for this purpose. Given the present scenario, it would be better to use Indian trucks for the movement of Bangladeshi goods. Observers suggest that the authorities in Bangladesh may start negotiations with the three other countries to ensure that benefits from this deal accrue to Bangladesh.
Another difficulty appears to be the easy availability of visa to these countries. Unless visa access is made easier between the countries, the movement of goods and people will be hampered.
It may be noted that sub-regional cooperation in connectivity, food security, energy, water resources and management, cross-border terrorism and environmental degradation owes its origin to the 2011 Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development which was signed in Dhaka during the visit of former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The preamble of the Agreement, in particular the last paragraph of the preamble, states that "cooperation at the bilateral, sub-regional and regional levels will accelerate development and enable the two countries to realise their developmental aspirations, shared destiny and common vision of a peaceful and prosperous South Asia."
In the past, India always insisted on dealing with issues with Bangladesh on a bilateral basis, even when the issue needed regional cooperation. For example, for the augmentation of the waters of the Ganges, under the 1977 Agreement, India rejected Bangladesh's proposal in the 1970s in engaging co-riparian Nepal, although the rivers in Nepal substantially contribute to the flow of the Ganges. Moreover, Nepal, India and Bangladesh are co-riparian nations of the Ganges.
Former Indian PM Manmohan Singh reportedly asserted that many of UPA's programmes were being repackaged and marketed as initiatives of the BJP government and that his successor had been a better salesperson than he was. Whatever the case may be, by signing the Framework Agreement, India has departed from its past stance of bilateralism and has finally agreed on the cooperation of sub-regional and regional level on areas such as water, energy, food security and environmental degradation.
The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.