The BBIN MVA – real ap­pre­hen­sion or po­lit­i­cal blame game?

Business Bhutan - - Opinion - Achyut Bhan­dari Busi­ness Bhutan pro­vides this vi­tal pub­lic space to cit­i­zens from cross sec­tion of the so­ci­ety to en­cour­age free and frank de­bate, di­a­logue and dis­cus­sion. Views and opin­ions ex­pressed here are that of the writer. If you wish to con­trib­ute

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.

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