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Bhutan blocks India’s ambitious sub-regional road connectivity plan

india Updated: Nov 17, 2016 20:13 IST
BBIN plan

Union minister for road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, briefs the media in New Delhi.(Sonu Mehta/HT file photo)

An ambitious road connectivity plan involving Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) --- an initiative pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boost trade --- has hit a roadblock with the upper house of Bhutan parliament deciding against ratifying the motor vehicle pact on Wednesday.

The BBIN agreement – signed in Bhutan’s capital Thimpu in July – will become operational only when all the four countries ratify it. India, Bangladesh and Nepal have already ratified the pact.

The pact will allow seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicles among the four countries. Under the agreement, the “contracting parties” will allow cargo vehicles for inter-country cargo, including third country cargo and passenger vehicles or personal vehicles, to ply in the territory of another country “subject to the terms of the agreement”.

All vehicles, however, will require a permit for plying through the other country.

This is the second time that the Indian government’s sub-regional road connectivity plan has hit a hurdle. Earlier, Pakistan scuppered the Saarc motor vehicle agreement by refusing to come on board.

India then decided to tap its eastern neighbours to boost regional connectivity. Bypassing Pakistan, India moved to have an agreement with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to remove restrictions on vehicular movement in the subcontinent.

Senior government officials in the Union road transport and highways ministry said a large cross-section of people in Bhutan, including lawmakers, had expressed concerns over the environmental impact of allowing large number of vehicles enter the country after it ratifies the pact.

“The lower house of Bhutan parliament had approved the pact earlier this year. But on Wednesday, the upper house (National Council) decided against it. This might derail the entire plan as any restrictions which are beyond the reasonable won’t be accepted by the other member countries,” said a senior ministry official who did not want to be quoted.

India is in a bilateral motor vehicle agreement with Nepal and Bangladesh, but a multilateral pact would go a long way in boosting trade in the region.

A release issued by the National Council of Bhutan said on Wednesday that the Upper House voted on the agreement following thorough deliberations after its legislative committee pointed out its general as well as specific reservations on the pact. Of the 20 members present and voting, two members voted for the ratification of the agreement, while 13 voted against it and five abstained.

Officials familiar with the developments say Bhutan has been pushing for a cap on vehicles entering its territory for some time. Such discussions came up during the transport officials’ meeting in Dhaka in March.