India is back at the drawing board on BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA), an ambitious sub-regional transport project, even as Bhutan has shelved it for the time being. The BBIN, which is promoted by India and aimed at creating seamless connectivity between the four countries for enhanced sub-regional trade and movement of people, suffered a body blow on April 29, with Bhutan announcing that it will not be able to ratify the plan before it addresses some of concerns raised domestically over the project. “This is Bhutan’s internal matter. The plan can come into force even without Bhutan.
Just that India and the other three countries will have to redraw plan. They can join it once they are ready, but as a new member,” a top official, involved in the project, told. The remaining three countries have already ratified it. With the final approval from Bhutan, the plan would have come into force. The lower house of Bhutanese Parliament had also rejected it in November last year but there were hopes that the Upper House would approve it. The joint working group on BBIN, which was due to meet this month, will now meet next month to redesign the routes. This is because, as per the present plan, some corridors are starting from Paro and Phuentsholing in Bhutan connecting Dhaka and then Kolkata, said the official.
Thereafter, protocols have to be amended by India, Bangladesh and Nepal separately, after which, each of these countries will have to pass the edited protocols through their respective Parliaments because this is an international agreement. “The entire process will take five to six months. It will not be easy,” the official added. The main reason behind Bhutan’s hesitance to sign the pact now is because of environmental concerns raised by a section of the country’s citizens. Ironically, the deal was signed in Thimpu on June 15, 2015, as part of the commitments made in the 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathamandu, Nepal.
India, on its part, has invested considerable diplomatic time and energy in implementing the plan aggressively. The Indian government had been pushing the plan aggressively because it also wanted to bypass Pakistan for not giving its consent to the larger MVA project that is aimed at connecting all those countries that share land borders. The BBIN MVA is also touted to be the cornerstone for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Look East’ strategy in his key foreign policy initiatives.
“The remaining three countries can start the plan. The positive news is that Bhutan has not quit the plan altogether. But when they join, they have to negotiate the terms afresh,” said Prabir De, Coordinator, ASEAN – India Centre, and Professor at RIS. India’s share in sub-regional trade is over 90 per cent. In 2015, India’s volume of total trade with BBIN countries was about $10.82 billion, of which exports accounted for $9.35 billion and the remaining was India’s import from BBIN, according to the IMF.