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Speeding On The Connecting Roads


wasbir hussain
executive director, cdps & visiting fellow, ipcs

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) finally sidestepped the Pakistan roadblock and embarked on a concrete regional integration initiative on 15 June 2015 when its BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) bloc signed a sub-regional Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA). The agreement, being fleshed out with the nitty-gritties in the next six months, is supposed to make trans-border movement of cargo and people much easier as a goods-laden truck can now move seamlessly between say Kolkata and Agartala, in Northeast India, through Bangladesh with a single set of travel and transit papers.

The BBIN MVA has generated enough excitement in Northeast India, touted as the ‘gateway to Southeast Asia’ but without a good road infrastructure or a mechanism until now for seamless trans-border travel in the neighbourhood. And, without any access to the sea-lanes, the region of 40 million people, spread over eight states, have so far been deprived of a level playing field in trade and business, mainly because the region has been landlocked. Now, with the MVA taking shape, this may become history as the region is set to have another land route linking it to mainland India through Bangladesh. This route will be an alternative to the narrow, 22-km wide Siliguri corridor, on the West Bengal-Assam border, fancifully called the ‘chicken’s neck.’

If the BBIN MVA works, it can transform things quite a bit. Take a look at this—Kolkata to Agartala is just 450 km if one can travel by road through Bangladesh, and it is 1700 km if one has to skirt Bangladesh and travel through the Siliguri corridor, via Assam and Meghalaya! Besides, the road link would provide Northeast India access to the Chittagong and Mongla ports in Bangladesh.

The MVA would also boost Northeast India's connectivity with South and Southeast Asian countries. The following routes are being explored under the MVA for this purpose: (1) Samdrup Jongkhar (Bhutan) – Guwahati (India) – Shillong (India) - Tamabil (Bangladesh) - Sylhet (Bangladesh) – Chittagong (Bangladesh) (2) Thimphu (Bhutan) – Phuentsholing (Bhutan) – Jaigaon (India) – Burimari (Bangladesh) - Mongla/Chittagong (Bangladesh) (3) Kathmandu (Nepal) - Kakarvita (Nepal) - Phulbari (India) – Banglabandha (Bangladesh) - Mongla (Bangladesh) (4) Silchar (India) – Sutarkandi (India) – Paturia (Bangladesh) – Benapole (Bangladesh) (5) Petrapole (India) - Kolkata (India) and (5) Agartala – Akhaura (Bangladesh) - Chittagong (Bangladesh). In order that the BBIN agreement delivers the expected impetus to the Northeast Indian economy, the Indian government too is reviewing the progress of highway construction in the region.

What could this connectivity or sub-regional integration means for India’s far-eastern frontier? India’s trade with its neighbours like Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam has grown from Rs. 81,385 crore in 2009-10 to Rs. 184,687 crore in 2013-14. Despite its proximity, however, Northeast India’s share in this trade and economic activity has been negligible.

Estimates put it at a mere 1 to 2 per cent of the total India-ASEAN trade. Poor connectivity and travel restrictions have been regarded as the key reason for this state of affairs, something that may change in the future in the wake of the MVA. Had Pakistan not refused to sign on the dotted line during the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, an MVA encompassing the entire SAARC region would have been place much earlier.

No doubt the signing of the MVA has generated a feel-good factor in these four nations, with optimists even going to the extent of saying it is the beginning of a European Union type of a structure, but one has to face the realities on the ground. India already has bilateral transport agreements with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, but these have not been working effectively. Hindrances like double-locking system on Nepalese trucks carrying cargo to third countries through India certainly are not trade-friendly. The BBIN MVA would work provided basic facilities are put up, including integrated check posts at the designated border-crossing points, training to Bank and Custom officials, and the border security agencies. Besides, making the emission norms uniform among the BBIN nations, and widening of roads, too, have to be taken into account.

It is estimated that trade across South Asia will increase by 60 percent because of the BBIN MVA. However, for this to happen, there has to be proper implementation of the agreement on the ground. This BBIN agreement can be said to be in sync with India’s Act East Policy and can become a crucial link in improving connectivity and trade between South and Southeast India. This is also expected to complement India’s other efforts at regional cooperation like the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) initiative with Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, along with the four BBIN nations. India, Myanmar and Thailand have also agreed to develop a similar framework for a motor vehicle agreement on the lines of the draft SAARC motor vehicle agreement. And once these agreements fall in place and truly become operational, one can hope to witness a resurgent, strong and integrated South and Southeast Asia.

The BBIN MVA has the potential to lift SAARC from the current dormant state, make it truly relevant for South Asian integration, develop and alter the economic profile of the periphery regions in countries like India (the Northeast), Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Besides, as a ‘side-effect’, this sub-regional cooperation has given out a clear message that Islamabad just cannot hold regional cooperation in South Asia hostage all the time, and that the region is now ready to integrate and move ahead on the road to progress.

(courtesy: The SARCist)