With SAARC in limbo, BBIN governments should energize grouping for regional growth and development

The Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal  (BBIN) sub-regional group has the potential to multiply the prosperity of its members, writes Amb. Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN)

With the eight-member SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) trapped in the web of India-Pakistan hostility, the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional group has the potential to multiply the prosperity of its members and push them collectively to greater prosperity if they can together create a roadmap and vision for the next fifty years.
 
Greater connectivity, seamless movement of cargo and supplies, mutual access to tertiary and higher education, mutual recognition of degrees and professional qualifications, seamless healthcare support, free movement of professionals, designation of transactions in their currencies, seamless banking and financial services, improvement of logistics, integration of supply chains inter alia, will help the sub-region create new value chains and grow into the next powerhouse of Asia.

Blessed with natural and human resources, access to Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific, cultural bridges, and connectivity to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the BBIN group has the potential to create prosperity and improve the quality of life of nearly two billion people. This would be possible if their governments so desire and breathe new life into this grouping to give impetus to growth and development in the region and promote its trade and technology connectivity with the world.

It will lead to greater understanding and exchanges among its diverse peoples and cultures and create a brave new world for future generations to progress and prosper in peace and tranquility

Economic engagement between these countries remains below par and potential. More needs to be done to augment and smoothen trade and investment flows. The questions of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers need to be examined and addressed. Advantage needs to be taken of South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) provisions.

Greater engagement

There has been good progress in the integration of transport infrastructure in the railway sector, while air, waterways, and highway links still have a lot of potential for enhancement. 

Some grumblings are occasionally voiced about Indian Lines of Credit to Bangladesh, which need to be considered and addressed by both governments. They may promote private financing and services in the future. This requires detailed discussions between finance ministries and central banks of both sides to replace such LoC funding with private sector financing on commercial terms.

Both countries may usefully explore the possibilities of designating trade transactions in national currencies rather than international hard currency only, the low availability and high cost of which restricts the potential expansion of trade volumes between the neighbors. Agreements on the transfer of social security benefits and mutual recognition of professional qualifications will encourage the free movement of professionals and help optimize the mutual use of human resources and infrastructure.

Food security and price stabilization can be ensured if the BBIN group treats itself as an integrated unit for estimating food needs and supplies. India must not include the BBN group in the ambit of its periodic food export bans which very badly affects these countries, heavily dependent on Indian food and grocery supplies. Prices skyrocket there whenever India bans the export, for example, of onions. Easier rules for food trade will even out demand/supply fluctuations, stabilize prices, and encourage greater output of its specialty products by each country as overall demand rises with the expansion of the market to BBIN and SAFTA countries. Eventually, the BBIN countries should work towards integrating their economies wherever possible to improve supply chains and create new demand, reduce endemic hunger and improve nutrition.

Close engagement is required to optimize the benefits of BBIN to address transportation, energy cooperation, environment, disaster management, and other issues, facilitate trade and investment to foster growth and unemployment.

Business and trade

The impasse in finalizing the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement can be resolved by enabling electric vehicle or CNG-hybrid vehicles in Bhutan to address her environmental concerns. The    BBIN group must urgently consider integrating their energy grids so that they can trade power directly with one another through the Indian grid, which will benefit from wheeling and delivery charges. This will largely solve the endemic power shortages in India and Bangladesh and increase the export incomes of Bhutan and Nepal exponentially.

Adopting a standardized system of trade documentation across the BBIN such as E-Waybills will make cargo traffic more seamless, as will the installation of cargo container scanners and major crossing points such as Raxaul-Birganj, Jaigaon-Phuntsholing, Petrapole-Benapole, etc.

Close administrative cooperation within the BBIN will improve our collective security, law and order as well as control terrorism and movement of contraband such as illegal drugs and weapons. It will also help to ease the movement of people, particularly tourists, especially if the BBIN mutually recognizes national identity cards, in addition to passports, and can access one another’s databases for verification of identities

Better connectivity can lead to the integration of tourism and pilgrimage routes and offer a seamless multi-country experience of our collective heritage and natural beauty to travelers, creating a new avenue of employment and income at tourism sites.

BBIN summits will be very useful to cooperate in determining the future growth of the region to realize its full potential. BBIN summit meetings will surely generate new ideas for development and collective prosperity. They may be held by rotation in each country, with the host holding the Presidency until the next summit. The presidency may present the annual agenda and work plan for the next year and seek majority approval or consensus from the assembled partners.

Joint Working Groups on core areas of cooperation may be upgraded to ministerial level. A BBIN Secretariat, if necessary, may be located in Bhutan, since Nepal is hosting the SAARC Secretariat and Bangladesh is home to BIMSTEC and CIRDAP.   

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal.  He can be reached at sarva.chakravarti@yahoo.co.uk)