A former senior Indian diplomat has suggested including Myanmar also in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) grouping.
Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow at ORF and a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, felt the BBIN grouping has elements of becoming a very successful sub-regional organization and so we have to nurture it and prevent political calculations from hijacking the larger developmental and economic objectives.
Chakravarty was delivering the valedictory address at the consultative international workshop on ‘Proximity to Connectivity: India and her Himalayan Neighbours’ organised by ORF in Kolkata on March 29-30.
He drew attention to the fact that despite the region’s inherent commonalities, the intra-regional trade is very low which indicates a much deeper problem of politics trumping economics. He said that technology has made remarkable progress but politics still continues to obstruct efforts. In this context, he highlighted the importance of grid connectivity, infrastructural developments and cooperation in the field of cyberspace.
However, Bhutan, despite its optimism on the grouping and its agreement on motor vehicles (BBIN MVA, signed last year), seems to be treading carefully. The Consul General of Bhutan, Dasho Karma Tshering Namgyal, also cautioned that the MVA could even aggravate cross border terrorism.
The official said “something that looks glamorous in the beginning may turn out uglier in the end.” He also pointed out that while the Agreement could be advantageous to some, it might not turn out to be so for every country.
He said the best way to stay friendly was through understanding the geo-political scenario of one’s own country as also that of the neighbours. Talking about connectivity he highlighted the significance of hydroelectricity which is referred to as Bhutan’s ‘white gold’. He reiterated the fact that hydroelectricity has already given Bhutan a very good platform to enhance its bilateral ties with India.
Sita Basnet, the Consul General of Nepal in Kolkata, highlighted that their effort towards connectivity is linked with the optimal use of resources and their just distribution. This will inevitably lead to a consolidation of the voice of the people. She mentioned the importance of the BBIN MVA but advised against premature euphoria since there remains a long way to go. She said that the there should be a collective dream for moving towards the goal of an integrated and inter-linked region.
Prof. Lokraj Baral, the Executive Chairman of Nepal Centre for Contemporary Studies (NCCS) and a former ambassador, delivering keynote address, considered that there could be no connectivity without meeting of minds. South Asia, in his opinion, is already well connected. Highlighting the interconnectedness of India and Nepal, he cited few instances as evidence to support his argument. For example, Nepal’s education system draws upon Macaulay’s idea of education in India that was promulgated in the nineteenth century. Most of the Nepalese leaders have been educated in India. The recruitment of Gorkhas in the Indian Army also closely linked India and Nepal. There has been physical connectivity as well in terms of road and air linkages between the two countries. Yet, Amb. Baral argued the problem lay essentially in the management of roads and other such logistics. It takes a long time to organize meetings between the two countries and numerous projects including hydropower projects are in a limbo. While Modi’s visit to Kathmandu last year led to the decision to reactivate the projects, they need to be expedited.
The first business session focused on “Cross-border Trade, Transit and Connectivity (rail, road, air and energy)”. It was observed that India agreeing to open the Vishakhapatnam port to Nepal for third country trade besides the already existing Kolkata/ Haldia port was a step forward in India’s connectivity with Nepal.The need for relooking at fundamentals when it comes to connectivity between Nepal and India was stressed. South-South Cooperation could present a model for bringing forth connectivity in the region but countries should decide how they want to look at their boundaries – as frontiers or as borders. Leveraging technology for connectivity could be a stepping stone in toning up connectivity in the region.
It is evident that Bhutan is weighing the merits of BBIN MVA signed in June, last year. While Bhutan has a strong political motivation to go ahead with it, the Himalayan nation feels that certain problems need to be addressed. Environmental and security issues topped Thimphu’s list of concerns. In this regard there is a need for addressing the impact of development, especially when Bhutan faces a development dilemma. Despite Bhutan having a different development model, there was a commonality in development thinking within the BBIN countries. The possibilities of establishing a Regional Stock Exchange, a Commodity Exchange and a Currency Union as the way forward for taking forward sub-regional cooperation were also discussed.
The second business session explored the “Scope for Strengthening Cooperation in Tourism, Education and Culture”. Along with major cultures like Hinduism, Buddhism, it was felt that ethnic cultures should be given prominence by both the countries. India is organising exchange programmes with Nepal and Bhutan but there is room for greater engagement. The education system in Bhutan has been divided into monastic education, general education and non-formal education. Since India provides monastic education, Nalanda University can collaborate with respective centres in Bhutan. India also provides training to Bhutanese army and police. India can contribute to strengthening Bhutan’s eco-tourism sector as the latter lacks proper infrastructural facilities like internet coverage. India already offers scholarship to Bhutanese students; Indian teachers teach at Bhutanese schools and colleges. With respect to connectivity, the issue of geo-politics is extremely important along with geo-economics. Bhutan, Nepal and India must remember that trust deficit leads to weak inter-state cooperation and make conscious efforts to remain convivial towards each other.
The theme of the final business session was “India and her Himalayan Neighbours within a Changing Asia”. The concept of sub-regionalism is a relative one as it is always a sub-set of and pitched against the concept of broad adjoining regions. It is undeniable that the state has its own imperatives such as sovereignty concerns, equitable distribution and so on while coping with the forces of globalization and ever evolving market conditions. The pertinent question therefore is how people feature in all these dimensions. Politics is essentially territorial with strategic concerns and from this perspective while the movement of people is a welcome proposition across states, concerns regarding the negative implications such as the movement of terrorists need careful consideration. While Nepal is striving to come out of its decade long transition to establish a lasting order, it must be kept in mind that foreign policy of the country will remain unstable for a few years to come as it is a natural feature of a new democracy and competitive political system.
China calibrates its strategic options with Nepal through the larger lens of its existing strategic matrix with India. China has been furthering its linkages with Nepal through the instruments of infrastructure, tourism, hydroelectricity, and cultural exchanges. While the blockade issue has taken its toll on India-Nepal relations, points of convergence need to rediscovered and carefully nurtured by both countries.
Bilateral trade relations between Bhutan and India have a lot of opportunities as well as challenges. Trade opportunities between the India and Bhutan are extremely high due to geographical proximity and there is a good potential market for Bhutanese products in northeast and east India. The opening up of new markets in strategic locations of Motenga, Samdrupjongkhar, Dhamdum in Samtse and Jigmeling in Sarpang will provide enhanced business opportunities to both countries. However, concerns regarding quality certification and logistics remain. For instance, the food certificate issued by the Bhutan Agricultural and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) is not recognized by the Indian government. These are minor technical issues and should be quickly attended to. Other areas of strengthening cooperation include regional tourism, agricultural and power.
Earlier, welcoming the guests, Prof. Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF Kolkata, said that the underlying reason for organising the conference was to understand the possibilities and problems of connectivity within the sub-region. He said that the three countries – India, Bhutan and Nepal share a long common past. Recently, with the establishment of democracy in both Nepal and Bhutan, there is more to share and be proud of among these three countries. Now the need is to maintain this common sub-regional identity while at the same time respect each other’s sovereignty. We need our governments to act together and our peoples to dream together.
Panelists at the workshop included Kesang Wangdi, Deputy Secretary General, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce & Industry; Hari Sharma, Director of Alliance for Social Dialogue, Social Science Baha, Nepal; Sujeev Shakya, CEO, BEED Management, Nepal; Khampa Tshering, Business Consultant, Bhutan; B.C. Upreti, Senior Fellow, ICSSR and Senior Member, South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan; Nilanjan Ghosh, Senior Fellow, ORF Kolkata; SangeetaThapliyal, Professor, SIS, JNU; Rajesh Kharat, Professor, SIS, JNU; Debomitra Mitra, Principal and Research, Director ILEAD; Anindya Batabyal, Assistant Professor, Kalyani University.