As economic integration gains priority for most of the countries, regional cooperation is seen as a vehicle that has transformative capacity by bringing in countries of the region to a common platform. South Asia has seen how the required connectivity within the region has failed as connectivity is seen through the prism of geo-politics. Increasingly sub-regional cooperation is seen as a vehicle that can bring together likeminded geographically proximate countries having similar developmental priorities. In this context, Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) as a forum of sub-regional cooperation has gained much currency. The BBIN is not part of the sub-regional cooperation envisaged in the SAARC charter but it promises to transform the eastern south Asia through transport connectivity and energy grids.
All the four member countries of the BBIN had agreed to cooperate on connecting the existing transport network and create new ones for seamless connectivity among themselves in June 2015 especially after the failure of Kathmandu SAARC Summit to agree on SAARC Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA). Though India, Nepal and Bangladesh have ratified the BBIN, Bhutan is yet to ratify it. Thimphu has however given green signal to the other three countries to go ahead with cooperation while asking for more time to ratify the treaty after addressing the environmental concerns raised by members of its National Assembly. Bhutan continues to attend the meetings as an ‘observer’.
Several bilateral connectivity projects are already being planned or is being implemented between the countries of the region. India has extended credit lines to neighbouring countries to develop road network, convert meter gauge railway track to broad gauge and restore the connectivity network that was in existence prior to 1965. It is also developing railway lines to link Nepal to Indian railways and is building petroleum pipeline for uninterrupted supply of oil to Kathmandu. Already, India and Bhutan are connected through road network. The underlying objective is such connectivity network is to facilitate trade and people to people contact. Ultimately the proposed sub-regional transport network will connect to the Asian Highway and railway network creating an integrated transport corridor. India is also developing the Kaladan multimodal project and the trilateral highway that would connect India with Myanmar and Thailand.
The BBIN subregional network can be a geo-political game changer as it connects economically the most marginal region of South Asia. India’s North East remains to be developed; Nepal and Bhutan through India’s North-eastern states can have access to the nearest ports in Bangladesh. Dhaka is likely to use the connectivity network to improve trading relations with land locked Nepal and Bhutan. Successful trial runs in each of the proposed routes have already been completed.
The three countries have decided to connect their grid for electricity trade under the BBIN sub-regional cooperation. India and Bangladesh are already trading in electricity. Around 660 MW of electricity is supplied to Bangladesh using grid connection and India has agreed to supply additional 1000 MW in coming years. India is investing in the Rampal power plant in Bangladesh apart from its hydro-electricity projects in Nepal and Bhutan. Bangladesh has now decided to invest in Bhutan’s hydroelectricity project and evacuate this electricity using the India-Bhutan grid connectivity. Similarly, Bangladesh would import electricity from Nepal using the already existing Indian grid which will be further strengthened to take the load. India has already made amendment to its cross border electricity trade draft to allow such trade to be operationalized. Such sub-regional grid connectivity secures the regional energy needs.
The BBIN has the potential to transform itself as a successful vehicle of regional cooperation. Transport connectivity, which includes multimodal motor vehicle agreement along with trade facilitation at the border, for seamless transit is extremely important for the success of the sub-regional cooperation. Free trade, expanded trade basket with least negative list and removal of nontariff barrier will go a long way to transform the economy of the eastern South Asian sub-region.
Script: Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik, Strategic Analyst On South Asia