Towards Prosperity: Revisiting The Significance Of Subregional Cooperation Among BBIN Nations – OpEd


Recently, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Hasan Mahmud, requested the ambassador of Bhutan of considering rejoining the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) initiative emphasizing its significance for sub-regional cooperation in connectivity and proposing collaborations in various sectors.

In response, Bhutan is actively considering rejoining the BBIN process soon, as communicated by a Bhutanese delegation at a meeting in Dhaka focused on the implementation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) held from March 5-6, 2024. Bhutan’s possible reengagement with the BBIN process highlights the ongoing importance of regional cooperation in promoting socio-economic development and strengthening relationships among neighboring countries.

Such recent developments related to Bhutan’s indication of rejoining the BBIN process, coupled with discussions on the implementation of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) calls for a reevaluation of BBIN’s significance and potential impact of it in fostering sub-regional connectivity, economic growth, and cooperation among neighboring nations in South Asia.

About BBIN initiative:

The Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal (BBIN) Initiative epitomizes a subregional cooperative framework within Eastern South Asia, emerged following the signing of the landmark Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in Thimphu on June 15, 2015, with the objective of facilitating seamless cross-border movement of goods and people, thereby fostering regional integration and economic development.

This initiative offers a mutually beneficial framework, fostering collaboration and shared prosperity among the participating nations through a “win-win proposition”. The BBIN vision for the sub-region is built upon four formidable pillars: trade, connectivity, and transit; investment in power generation and water management sectors; cooperation in energy, including power trade and the integration of national grids into a sub-regional grid; and fostering contact between the peoples of the region.

Revisiting Historical Linkage among BBIN Nations: 

The BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) nations collectively represent a vital component of the Bay of Bengal region, with the Bengal Delta spanning across Bangladesh and India’s Northeast Region (NER). Historically, this area has served as a significant hub for trade and cultural exchanges, fostering strong ties among these countries.

The BBIN countries share a common heritage shaped by historical trade routes, cultural exchanges, and diplomatic engagements, fostering a sense of interconnectedness and mutual understanding. Key historical events such as the spread of Buddhism, the Mughal Empire, and colonial rule have further intertwined the destinies of these nations, shaping their collective identity and fostering a sense of unity amidst diversity.  

Significance of the BBIN Initiative and Challenges:

The BBIN initiative focuses on fostering economic exchanges among South Asian nations, particularly Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. By enhancing road and rail connectivity, streamlining trade processes, and modernizing infrastructure, it aims to reduce trade costs and transit times, facilitating regional integration and economic growth. The expectation is that regional economic integration and enhanced people-to-people interactions will lead to improved relations among the BBIN member countries. For example, the Motor Vehicle Agreement (MVA) is anticipated to boost intra-regional trade, streamline trade logistics, and decrease trade expenses.

The BBIN initiative has proposed and enacted numerous agreements like the BBIN railway agreement, Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade (PIWTT), BBIN MVA, and India-Bangladesh coastal shipping agreements. These efforts have led to the development of diverse infrastructure aimed at bolstering multimodal connectivity within the sub-region. It may be further amplified by the fact that the absence of formal connectivity between West Bengal and Bangladesh, a myriad of factors may contribute to opting for informal trade route, including cultural affinities among border inhabitants, complementary demands, the geographical remoteness of border regions, the dearth of all-weather transportation infrastructure, and the lack of established trade channels. Consequently, border residents have resorted to informal trade routes as a means to safeguard their food security.

The BBIN initiative exemplifies the demonstration of political will and commitment among member states to solve the problem, evidenced by collaborative efforts and cooperation between participating nations, which serve as crucial determinants of success for connectivity endeavors and consequently the sub-regional prosperity. The BBIN countries’ GDP is projected to more than double by 2035, reaching US$6.2 trillion in 2030 and US$8.3 trillion in 2035, showcasing the significant economic potential and growth prospects of the BBIN region.

The necessity of political consensus within the BBIN subregion, as highlighted in the report “Multimodal Connectivity for Shared Prosperity,” is crucial for strengthening regional connectivity initiatives. A lack of political will impedes the implementation of agreements such as Bhutan’s withdrawal from the BBIN MVA in 2017, attributed to a lack of consensus among stakeholders and their raised apprehensions, poses a significant challenge to the effective implementation of the agreement.

Non-tariff barriers and inefficient trade practices further exacerbate trading costs, prompting informal trade practices that undermine government revenue and border security. Addressing these challenges requires harmonizing rules, practices, standards, and policies among BBIN countries to foster equitable gains and promote collaborative efforts towards regional connectivity and economic integration.

Way Forward: 

To enhance BBIN’s efficiency, member states should prioritize stakeholder engagement via local participation and public-private consultations. Increasing awareness about regional initiatives, compensating potential losers, and improving connectivity to population and economic hubs are crucial. Strengthening regional cooperation involves establishing a BBIN Research Institute and Secretariat for evidence-based projects and effective coordination. These actions aim to foster buy-in, address challenges, and expedite policy implementation.

Recommendations may also include establishing a geospatial digital platform, effective agreement implementation, transport integration, dispute settlement mechanisms, and interventions in soft and physical infrastructure. These measures would streamline trade, reduce delays, and enhance connectivity for shared prosperity.

Md. Jahid Al-Mamun

Md. Jahid Al-Mamun is currently serving as a Lecturer at Department of Law, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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