The BBIN MVA – real apprehension or political blame game?
The BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) was signed by the South Asian Sub-regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Transport Ministers in Thimphu on June 15, 2015. So much of optimism prevailed in that historic meeting. A SASEC Friendship Motor Rally was also flagged off from the capital on that day. The Agreement is an instrument of growth in regional trade through cross-border transportation in a region where transportation is cumbrous and costly, especially for a land-locked country like Bhutan. This initiative represents one of the few concrete steps within the SAARC ‘action committee’ comprising of the SASEC members - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (and now the Maldives, Myanmar and Sri Lanka). It took 30 years since the founding of SAARC, which has often been branded as a ‘talk shop,’ for the MVA to be signed, signifying the four Contracting Parties’ commitment to walk the talk. That Bhutan had hosted the Transport Ministers meeting showed its maturity in working with its neighbors in more concrete areas of regional cooperation.
Regrettably, the optimism was short lived as our parliamentarians failed to reach a consensus on ratification of the Agreement even after prolonged discussions in 2016 in both houses of parliament. No one questions the prerogative of our law makers to discuss the issue thoroughly before taking a decision. I applaud the learned members for showing so much of interest in the subject. Yet, while respecting their views, I am not convinced of the reasons adduced by the DPT and National Council members in opposing the ratification.
Space does not permit me to delve in detail to respond to multiple reasons that have been cited against the Agreement. Broadly, I can classify the main reasons as security concerns, low or negligible benefits to Bhutan, adverse environmental and social impact and insufficient consultations by the Government with the people. Let me address each these in brief.
No Bhutanese would want to compromise on the national security. This must rightly be in the forefront of national development at all times. The MVA, however, has adequate provisions to cover such concerns as, for example, Article V (6) states: “Contracting Parties will decide on the number of cargo, personal vehicles and volume of traffic under the Agreement through mutual consultation and agreement.” The details will be negotiated in the Protocol. While the concept of reciprocity built in the MVA is an important principle in international relations, it is not non-negotiable. Bhutan cannot open the flood gate for buses or individual cars from other countries.
But the MVA provides safeguards. Only the authorized operators can start cargo or passenger transport, that too if the business is viable in terms of the agreed travel route, cargo volume and number of travelers. The approved transport carrier cannot carry passengers or additional load in the country of destination. Further, provisions exist for the receiving country to inspect and search the foreign vehicles plying in the country, and also to impose temporary restrictions if national interests are seen to be compromised. Interestingly, in case of the
growing number of tourists from the region visiting Bhutan, the MVA can help us to better coordinate our services and monitor their visits.
As for economic benefits, we should not purely look at the present conditions. We should be forward looking and take calculated risks for returns in the medium to long term as our industrial production and exports grow. At present, with few exceptions, India-registered vehicles are transporting our exports to or imports from Kolkata, Burimari and Kakarbhitta as those trucks can carry heavier loads. As existing bilateral arrangements will be honoured, there will be no change to the present transport arrangement with India.
The MVA will benefit our trade with Nepal and Bangladesh, or through Bangladesh as a transit country for our trade outside the BBIN subregion. For exports, Bhutan-registered vehicles can deliver cargo directly to the destination, and vehicles registered in Bangladesh or Nepal can deliver imports from those countries to Bhutan. This will make trade more efficient as transshipment at the Indo-Bangladesh or Indo-Nepal border will not be required. Our exporters are already complaining of the extra cost and time taken at the border for transshipment, especially for the export of perishable products like fruits and vegetables. Moreover, the Bhutanese transporters have the prospects to expand their business in the sub-region if they can develop their capacity instead of brooding that they cannot compete.
It is true that there may be some environmental and social impact of MVA’s implementation. However, these concerns already exist. We only have to look at the growing number tourists and increasing vehicle population in the country. Hence, these concerns are over stressed in the context of the MVA given the in-built safeguards in the Agreement or those that can be detailed in the Protocol. For instance, one of the 11 documents that are required by the vehicle to carry across the border includes the emission test requirements. And entry visa and permit requirements for travellers have to be inevitably met by the transport operator.
The Government is the best judge regarding the scope and extent of public consultations needed on the MVA for getting the parliament’s approval. Frankly speaking, it did not have a clear strategy for these consultations as it might have under estimated the force of dissent. But equally, it is unwise on the opponents to withhold support to the Government and derail a key foreign policy initiative. This only make Bhutan an ‘odd man’ in the SASEC forum in which it has been playing very active and constructive roles so far.
In sum, the MVA is a mechanism for economic cooperation within the SASEC sub-region. It is also consistent with Bhutan’s objective of promoting regional cooperation and greater integration in South Asia, an objective that has been re-affirmed since SAARC was set up in 1985. It would be a pity if Bhutan is left out of this important initiative that has the potential to benefit the Bhutanese people and open up new vistas of regional cooperation.