By Charles F Moreira, Editor
Whilst China’s Belt & Road initiative spans across Asia, Europe and Africa, India’s more modest Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) initiative aims to enable cooperation on matters related to water resources, electric power and transport infrastructure between these four neighbouring countries.
The roots of the BBIN initiative reach back to the approval in May 1996 by India’s Council of Minister of a sub-regional body comprised of Nepal, Bhutan, north east India and Bangladesh as the South Asian Growth Quadrangle (SAGO).
One year later at a summit in Malé, it was agreed to coordinate efforts which would address the special individual needs of three or more member states. It formalised procedures to develop intra-regional trade and investment, tourism, communication, and energy resources in the north east of the Indian sub-continent which were complimentary and would facilitate growth.
Further proposals and discussions continued off and on, until November 2014.
At the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Kathmandu, India submitted a proposal to intensify cooperation in trade, investment, finance, energy, security, infrastructure, connectivity and culture between Afghanistan, the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal.
However, as Pakistan objected to the SAARC proposal, it was not adopted.
So India instead decided to promote the agreement between the BBIN countries and at a meeting of the BBIN Transport Ministers in Thimphu, Bhutan in June 2015, the four countries signed a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) which allows motor vehicles, including cars, goods vehicles, buses and so forth from the member countries to enter another member country once it has obtained the necessary electronic permit and gone through border control.
Under the BBIN MVA, goods being transported from one of the BBIN countries to another would no longer need to be unloaded and then loaded onto a new vehicle at the border. This enabled the transport of goods and people between these countries to be easier, faster and cheaper. Thus promoting the increase of trade and development of infrastructure in the region.
The Indian government had appointed DHL Global Forwarding to carry out a pilot run under the agreement. The first cargo truck to take advantage of the MVA agreement left Kolkata on 1 November 2015 and travelled 640 km to reach Agartala via Dhaka. Before the signing of the BBIN Motor Vehicle Agreement, the truck would have had to travel 1550 km through Indian territory to reach Agartala, so the agreement helps save on both cost and time.
Whilst India, Bangladesh and Nepal had ratified the MVA and Bhutan had signed the agreement, it still had to be accepted by the Bhutan people and ratified by the national parliament.
Meanwhile in October 2017, India, Bangladesh and Nepal began acting on their obligations under the MVA. India announced, that as part of it’s BBIN MVA initiative, it would create new bus routes between India and major cities in Nepal and Bangladesh, and also participate in road construction in the region.
In January 2018, India, Bangladesh and Nepal agreed to a protocol to the MVA which defined the procedure for border crossing of passenger buses and private vehicles. The final document will be signed once it has been approved by all the parties.
There have already been several trial consignments of goods transported along the Calcutta-Dhaka-Agartala and Delhi-Calcutta-Dhaka routes.
River Feni Bridge
A bridge being built across the Feni river is another important project which will increase India’s links with other countries in the region. It will provide a link between the Tripura state in India and the Khagrachhari district in Bangladesh and it is expected to bring about significant growth in trade and tourism between the two countries, once it is completed in 2020.
Together, the BBIN MVA, the River Feni Bridge project, and other similar initiatives can be considered as successful moves by India to strengthen its relations with South Asian nations.
The best of both worlds?
Due to its past conflicts with China, India has so far been rather cool on participating in China’s Belt & Road initiative. However, political observer Dmitry Bokarev believes that since India’s neighbours may not feel the same way about China and will participate in Belt & Road anyway. India may have to reconsider its current stand and cooperate with China, whilst developing its own infrastructure projects.