The demonstrable success of BBIN cooperation may draw Sri Lanka and Maldives also into its ambit in the near future. India's government and corporate sectors must work together to make BBIN cooperation a success to mutual advantage.
India's first area of interest in its foreign policy is its immediate neighbourhood. This has been established in her 'Neighbourhood First' policy. The area which promises long-term benefits includes an eastern South Asian sub-group, called by its acronym BBIN, comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and India.
This platform has existed for some years now but at a relatively low diplomatic level; so its first major cooperation proposal, the Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) reached in Thimphu in 2015, is still not ratified by Bhutan, pending consensus over a variety of questions including environmental, revenue, immigration and security issues.
The BBIN was mooted in 1997 as a sub-regional group of the eight-member SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), which has remained comatose due to the hostile relations between India and Pakistan, and it all the potential to become a coherent zone of development cooperation. Nepal and Bhutan already enjoyed special bilateral relationship with India, and Bangladesh would find transit through India to those countries much more easy than at present. All four countries were already parties to the South Asia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).
Areas of cooperation
Some possible issues for coordination among the BBIN countries may, inter alia, include:
a) Motor Vehicles Agreement: This can be resolved by creating a vehicle parking area at Jaigaon in India and transfer of cargo and passengers from there through Immigration and Customs into a similar bay in Bhutan, from which CNG-powered trucks, buses and EVs can transport cargo into and out of Bhutan. This will allay the concerns of Bhutan regarding increased vehicular pollution in their green country. Security concerns can be allayed by insisting that each vehicle is capable of being GPS tracked, the technology for which is widely available at retail levels. Standardisation of driver training and licensing can result in mutual recognition of driving licenses, eliminating the need for International Driving Permits and thereby boosting cargo and passenger traffic between them.
b) Food security: The BBIN region remains malnourished and largely dependent on India for much of its food supplies. If the region is treated as a single area for food security purposes, the occasional Indian bans on exports of certain food items will not apply to the other countries, resulting in steady supplies and stable retail prices. If import requirements are also pooled BBIN may get better price terms for bulk purchasing. Indian logistics firms will also benefit. Overall, India may enable the BBIN to achieve freedom from hunger.
c) Healthcare: Standardisation of healthcare training and mutual recognition of medical and nursing qualifications will open a new market for the international movement of medical professionals and services. Development of healthcare services along Indian borders and special provision for patients with valid national identification to access Indian facilities within 5 km of the border on the production of medical referrals will stimulate our healthcare, medical training and hospitality sectors. Similar pooling of import requirements may also be beneficial as would be a free trade agreement on medical supplies.
d) Education: Educational exchange can be promoted at all levels by standardisation and mutual recognition of curricula and teaching qualifications. if school-leaving certificates and common TET, NET etc examinations are acceptable to the BBIN, there can be free movement of teachers and students as well as a common pool of qualified professionals for employment. Indian educational institutions need to pay special attention to building and maintaining decent hostels so that they can fully utilise their foreign student quotas and earn for the country. This will be especially important for medical and professional courses.
e) Financial services: Intra-BBIN trading should be undertaken in national rather than hard currencies. It may be even better if national currencies were mutually acceptable for tourism, healthcare, education etc. As Indian currency is already acceptable in Bhutan and Nepal, one only needs to reach an agreement with Bangladesh.
Green power and people contacts
f)Power generation: The enormous green power potential of Nepal and Bhutan may be used by interlinking national grids and India taking a wheeling charge to enable Bangladesh to make her own power purchase agreements with Nepal and Bhutan. This will create supply stability, avoid regional power shortfalls and increase the national incomes of Bhutan and Nepal. If their public and private transportation can be largely converted to such green energy, it will save the fragile Himalayan ecology
g)Sports exchanges: BBIN sponsorships for encouraging youth fitness and sports will help create healthier, better nourished and more energetic and capable future generations who can compete better in global sports and athletics. Corporate sponsorship and SAI can enable this process
h) Youth exchanges: These will be useful in developing better mutual understanding among future generations and a common drive to improve quality of life and average income. Apart from pre-setting programmes and events, there should be time for free socialising and discussions among the participants of their hopes and aspirations. New ideas and points of view arising from this process may even help problems now considered intractable
i) Cultural exchange: Cultural workers everywhere are facing great difficulty owing to reducing government support and public patronage of the arts. Training schools of experts need support to keep the classical, traditional and folk arts alive. Concerts need to make people aware of and enjoy them, encouraging young students to continue their training. Corporate CSR support is critical for keeping our arts alive and disseminating them across the world. There needs to develop some private impresarios/agents who can offer artists to perform at festivals around the world, while the government agencies such as the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) use their limited resources on developing countries. The presentations must also be in the local language, both of the art form and the programme itself, otherwise, audiences become limited to the Indian diaspora.
j) Trade: BBIN can use the existing SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Agreement) provisions to the maximum and harmonise trade documentation, standards and other requirements to smoothen the flow of goods and services between them.imum
k) Investment; Investment protection and profit repatriation agreements among the BBIN will promote investments and manufacture for Intra-BBIN trade. Mutual banking and financial services need to be streamlined for faster processing.
l) Science & Technology: Common or joint research, particularly in the medical sciences may reduce endemic and vector-borne disease, New and innovative technologies may be shared to optimise their application and benefits
m) Climate change mitigation: Afforestation, coastal protection, pollution control, waste recycling, flood mitigation, mountain ecology preservation, new crops, wildlife management
n) Infrastructure: More air links and rail connectivity will boost tourism, pilgrimage and trade, adding substantial income to the economies
o) Telecommunications: Integration of telecom and ITeS services will make life easier and create greater awareness of particular concerns
p) Disaster relief and reconstruction: Joint responses to earthquake flood relief epidemics etc can mitigate the impacts faster and enable affected people to reconstruct their lives more easily.
q) Water Resources Management: Discussions are going on regarding the possibilities in this sector
More ideas for fruitful BBIN cooperation can be added to the above list to improve the quality of life in the region. The demonstrable success of BBIN cooperation may draw Sri Lanka and the Maldives also into its ambit in the near future. India's government and corporate sectors must work together to make BBIN cooperation a success to mutual advantage.
India may try to resolve incipient differences by focusing more on collective political will. This may be done by upgrading it to a summit process at levels of foreign secretary, foreign minister and summits between prime ministers, preferably on an annual and rotational basis between the four countries.
Meetings at each level may be held in a different country so that all four partners have a certain level of responsibility in each round. This process will also give opportunities for bilateral meetings on the sidelines and resolve problems as and when they arise.
(The author is a retired Indian ambassador. Views are personal)