> Society > International Relations  
Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew
Date of Publish: 2015-07-21

The signing of the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement for the Regulation of Passenger, Personal and Cargo Vehicular Traffic is a major development. The agreement is a step towards a new sub-regional arrangement among the four BBIN countries.

 

The agreement is in line with the existing bilateral transit agreements on trade that the four countries agreed upon from time to time. This include the India-Nepal overland transit traffic agreement in 1999; India-Bhutan from 2006; and India-Bangladesh in 2010 that provides transit for India’s Northeast through Bangladesh as well as transit for Bangladesh and Nepal through India.

 

This agreement also comes in the time of an agreement to facilitate movement of people across the border through the daily bus services between Delhi-Kathmandu, Delhi-Pokhara and Varanasi-Kathmandu, and between Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati. Today, by virtue of India’s bilateral agreements with Nepal and Bhutan, movement of people to and from India is easy and virtually hassle-free. BBIN can thus be seen as a sub-regional arrangement for seamless flow of goods, people, and services.

 

The sub-region: An overview

The sub-region with a vibrant growth has a total population of about 1.4 billion. The following table shows the break-up.

Table 1

Country

Population

GDP Size-2014 (USD Billion)

GDP Annual Growth Rate(%)- 2014

Per Capita Income (USD)2014

Poverty Rate%  (Bhutan 2012; Bangladesh 2010; India-2011-12; Nepal 2010-11)

Literacy Rate % (2011)

Bhutan

729429

1.88

4

2037.16

12

63

Bangladesh

150200000

129.86

6.12

625.34

25.6

60

India

1,210,726,932

1876.8

7.5

1165

21.9

74.4

Nepal

26494504

19.29

19.29

409.04

25.16

65.9

 

The size of its population makes the sub-region, politically charged for too long, a huge market with India’s growing at over 7.17% followed by Bangladesh’s at 6.01%, Nepal’s at 3.4%, and Bhutan’s at 4% (2014). But the trade with the world beyond is more than within the region. According to a study by the Asia-Pacific Research and Training Network on Trade of 2008, intra sub-regional trade was only about 2% of transit trade while 98% was extra-sub-regional. 

 

Despite the phenomenal economic growth in the last few years, the sub-region is among the poorest in the world. High-rises and malls beside slums underscore the disparity in income and livelihood and the rich-poor, urban-rural divide. Bangladesh, India and Nepal are yet to address the issue of poverty like Bhutan, which cut poverty by half from 23% in 2007 to 12% in 2012. Nepal has the most people living under poverty (25.16%) followed by Bangladesh (25%) and India (21.9%).

 

Similarly, literacy rate and per capita income in this sub-region is among the lowest in the world. India heads the literacy rate table with 70.4% followed by Nepal 65.9%, Bhutan 63%, and Bangladesh 60% (2011-12). Bhutan leads in per capita income at $2037.16 followed by India at $1165, Bangladesh at $635.34, and Nepal at $409.04.

 

BBIN and India’s Northeast region

BBIN sub-regions such as Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar are sub-regional initiatives that flow out of India’s post-1990s economic liberalisation and Look East Policy. An analysis of these two sub-regional arrangements in the context of Northeast India makes it clear that while excluding Bhutan and Nepal (two regions contiguous to Northeast India), BCIM is also hostage to India’s security concern vis-á-vis China’s access to the Northeast. On the other hand, BBIN is more palatable to India’s economic and military security considering the contiguous geographical landmass and close historical and cultural ties that these countries share with each other.

 

Table 2

 

Population (2011)

GDP Size- (USD Billion)

(India 2012

Others 2014)

GDP Annual Growth Rate (%)- 2014

Per Capita Income (USD)

Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh (2014)

Northeast, West Bengal, Eastern Bihar (2013)

*Approx

Poverty Rate%  (Bhutan 2012; Bangladesh 2010; India-2011-12; Nepal 2010-11)

Literacy Rate % (2011)

Bangladesh

150200000

129.86

6.12

625.34

25.6

60

Bhutan

729429

1.88

4

2037.16

12

63

West Bengal

91347736

 101.46

14.55

 902*

19.98

77.08

Eastern Bihar

17878907

 NA

 NA

183.37*

 NA

54.61

Northeast

41309262

 4.61

15.7

 997.38*

25.06

79.63

Eastern Nepal Region

5811555

 NA

 NA

1570

21.44

53.95

 

This reality makes sub-regional cooperation a right move by the four BBIN countries. With increasing cooperation in transport and transit, development and access to sea and river ports in India and Bangladesh, the sub-regional organisation can be a game-changing matrix in India’s relations with its neighbours besides boosting the economy of its eastern and landlocked north-eastern parts.

 

At the crossroads: A real challenge

India’s West Bengal, eastern Bihar and Northeast region with a combined population of 305 million form the core of BBIN. Prior to partition of the subcontinent, this region was economically vibrant but is stagnant and amongst the least developed South Asian regions today. Though the region’s GDP is about $250 billion and its annual growth rate ranges from 4-15% (average growth is 10% annually), it is full of contradictions. Except Bhutan, poverty is high and the per capita income of $1000 is among the lowest in the world (Table 2) while the average literacy rate is about 65%.  

 

Take the example of Northeast India. In their study “Access to Public Healthcare in the Rural Northeast India”, Dilip Saikia and Kalyani Kangkana Das found that child immunisation – crucial for child survival and checking infant mortality – is below the national average in all the north-eastern states except Mizoram and Sikkim.

 

The study also found that “all the north-eastern states except Sikkim are far below the national average in terms of failure to provide any vaccination to children in both the rural and urban areas”. There is acute shortage of health centres, it said, despite the progress in instituting health centres across the region after the implementation of NRHM in 2005.

 

The study underscores the paradox that the region is in. Despite an impressive growth of about 15% and higher per capita income (compared to West Bengal or Bangladesh), the poverty rate is higher in the region in certain instances; access to health care is difficult and school dropout rate is staggering. The 2011 Human Development Report on North East States noted that the dropout rate in six out of the region’s eight states is higher than the national average despite high literary level.

 

Massive central funding in the name of development has been responsible for the state the militancy-mauled region is in today. Easy flow of funds – Delhi allegedly gets a cut through brokers – has been counter-productive; it has aggravated the conflict situation with an emergent elite class sired by or promoting contract-and-rent economy privy to the money. 

 

Furthermore, the region faces perennial transnational challenges of illegal migrants, drugs, arms and human trafficking – issues that have translated into politics of violence. These need to be resolved at the bilateral level, and more importantly, through a sub-regional network for fruition of the BBIN mandate. India’s Unique Identification (UID) experience and expertise can help tackle these problems if replicated by the other three countries of this sub-region toward building a database on their population. Such data will in the long run be useful when the sub-region further liberalises the movement of people and services. The UID initiative can be supplemented by a sub-regional agreement on extradition of criminals and other transnational illegal activities.

 

The region also needs to give a serious though to addressing the refugee problem and its trigger, environmental or economic. Member-states may be reluctant to deal with this issue of human suffering together, but experiences in Europe and Africa show that a collective sub-regional framework facilitates regional stability.

 

BBIN has a lot of positives on paper, but absence or lack of governance, accountability and transnational cooperation in key areas will make it a futile and half-baked initiative – like SAARC.

 

(Teiborlang T Kharsyntiew teaches at the Department of International Relations, Sikkim University and can be reached at teibor@gmail.com)

 

*Sources of tables: World Bank; UNICEF, NHDR, Ministry of DoNER (GoI); Planning Commission, Government of India, 2013; Royal Govt of Bhutan, Islamic Republic of Bangladesh; United Nations Filed Coordination Office, Biratnagar

 

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