Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) are a group of countries in South Asia which are potential partners in a sub-regional forum of great strategic and economic significance. As the members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and also the countries which have connected land borders coupled with cultural and linguistic affinity, these countries have been working towards better inter-country integration in terms of connectivity, development, education and geostrategic importance. The 16th SAARC Summit in Bhutan has declared 2010-2020 as the “Decade of Intra-regional Connectivity in SAARC”. Since then, many discussions and dialogues have been conducted to develop a framework for the BBIN initiatives with India taking the lead.
It is opportune for the leaders and people of BBIN countries to realize the importance of regional integration and connectivity for broader market and economic development across domestic boundaries. Nepal has highlighted the relevance of regional trade route for promoting the intra-regional trade; Bangladesh has prioritized the implementation of land transport policy and has increased the investment in roads and railways; Bhutan has prioritized the construction of South-East-West highways to be linked with the southern economic hubs; and India, as a stable economy has prioritized the ‘Act East’ policy to promote her strategic and economic interests and also to make proper use of BBIN platform as a new tool for her sub-regional diplomacy. All these developments have one thing in common – the need for inter-BBIN economic integration and trade cooperation.
Map of BBIN Countries
The loose forum of countries, though agree in principle with the targeted goal of economic integration and higher trade among countries, they still need to work out the ways and means to materialize economic and cultural integration among BBIN countries. Countries in the BBIN grouping vary in many ways: Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries, whereas India and Bangladesh are not; Nepal and India have an open international border and open immigration policies whereas Bangladesh does not share a similar approach. Such technical complications always come at the forefront of all discussions on the issue of sub regional integration.
Despite this fact, there are benefits that the BBIN countries can reap through broader economic and strategic relations. Transportation, Trade Facilitation and Energy are three most important benefits that all countries can get from BBIN initiatives. Multi model transportation networks will enhance regional connectivity and boost economic growth. The road, rail and air links as well as port facilities for the landlocked Nepal and Bhutan can change the entire trade dynamics. Modern custom administration, improved cross-border trade regulations and facilitating information to the private sectors will further facilitate sub regional trade. Likewise, promoting intra-regional power trade, mainly focusing on tapping the massive hydroelectricity capacity of Nepal and Bhutan, can electrify the entire region. Nepal’s approach should be precise and concrete enough to materialize this potential through the BBIN platform.
BBIN can be an alternative to SAARC that has failed in almost all cooperation initiatives due to lack of trust among the countries especially India and Pakistan. Bangladesh is keen to import hydroelectricity from Bhutan; Nepal is keen to open the trade route to and from the ports of Bangladesh; India, on its part, is keen to act as the center of all economic transaction in South Asia for its broader strategic and diplomatic interest. In a nut shell, the BBIN initiatives are the change maker for the economic prosperity of the sub region. BBIN can set an example of mutual prosperity and trust for the rest of the countries in the region to emulate.
Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Pact for the seamless movement of cargo and people between the four countries in the sub regional block was signed in June, 2015. However, the implementation seems bit tricky as there are concerns in Bhutan regarding the impact it might have on domestic transport industry and environmental and social costs.
BBIN region despite having abundant water availability per capita, especially Bhutan and Nepal – which have surplus water resources, the region still faces acute shortage of water during dry seasons. It’s a developmental paradox that the “region with ample water is facing ample poverty”. It is the time to come together and to discover the methods that will change this scenario into “ample water with ample prosperity”. Factors that have the potential to enhance power trading and exchange in the region also need to be understood so that effective policies can be formulated in this regard.
Despite of all these potentials and opportunities, there still prevail some concerns regarding security, fragile diplomatic relations among countries and the lack of a robust economy among the countries other than India.
Concerns regarding security
Openness not just opens the door for increased trade and tourism, it also increases the possibilities of smuggling of drugs, arms and the trafficking of humans across the international border and to third countries through the sea routes. The existence of porous border and the large scale misuse of the border by the non-state actors, the issue of cross border is extremely urgent and yet one that requires time and vigilance. BBIN countries need to sit together to discuss and to develop a common framework for controlling the criminal non-state actors and their activities.
The matter of Infrastructure
Countries other than India lack proper and advanced infrastructure to enhance the objectives of broader economic and social connection among BBIN countries. Moreover these countries also have a lower purchasing power capacity to build mega projects. India, which is at the center of all economic transactions in the region and being a neighbor to all these countries, does have a bigger responsibility to support these countries need of developing the infrastructure.
The matter of diplomatic relations among countries
Some of these countries in BBIN are facing an unprecedented crisis in diplomatic relations at the moment. Nepal and India are facing a downward spiral in diplomatic relations and it has not been long since Bangladesh and India improved its relations through border re-demarcation. Bhutan is also trying to get access to other countries other than India through Motor Vehicle Agreement. It needs to be kept in mind that the diplomatic and bilateral relations between and among countries are the ‘low hanging fruits’ or in other words, the basic steps that BBIN countries should focus on in order to strengthen dialogue and to make the proper utilization of BBIN platforms.
All the partner countries would get a profound benefit from the BBIN initiatives and therefore it is imperative for the countries of BBIN to develop the process of dialogue, formulation of policies and implement the planned programs that would eventually address the needs and the goals. Transforming the constraints and barriers into strengths and to work for shared goals and outcomes will help these countries to integrate and prosper their relations at deeper levels. It is for all the sub regional countries to keep in mind that prosperity of the region is mutually reinforcing for the prosperity of individual citizens. It is also important to realize that ‘Dialogue’ is the best way to find common ground for understanding and to support the mutual interests of all concerned.
Peace Researcher and Expert in International Relations
(MA International Relations, Colombo; MA Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, TU and Ruhuna)
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