Improved connectivity is an imperative to realise intra-regional trade potential in the BBIN Subregion: CUTS

March 2, 2023

Improved transport connectivity is an imperative to realise intra-regional trade potential in the BBIN subregion, opined experts at a regional meeting organised by CUTS International in New Delhi yesterday.

“Transport connectivity should be the main building block for intra-regional trade and cooperation in the BBIN subregion and this must cover different modes of transportation. Under our work on multimodal connectivity in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal subregion, we have not looked at road connectivity in silos, but gone much beyond that. We have identified that several multimodal connectivity options are already present in this subregion and they need to be nurtured to realise their potential to double intra-regional trade in this subregion from the current level of US$ 20bn,” said Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.

He was speaking at a Regional Meeting titled ‘Multimodal Connectivity in the BBIN Subregion’. It was organised under a project ‘Enabling a Political Economy Discourse for Multimodal Connectivity in the BBIN Subregion’ and was attended by more than 70 participants representing a diverse group of stakeholders. The project is supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom under its Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme.

In his introductory remarks, Didar Singh, Former Secretary of Overseas Affairs, Government of India and Distinguished Fellow, CUTS International, mentioned that political economy is the most important aspect that enables policy making process and its proper understanding is the way forward for multimodal connectivity in the BBIN subregion. “Improved political economy understanding is required to give the necessary push in this direction,” he argued.

According to Kuancheng Huang, Professor, Department of Transportation and Logistics Management, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan, for successful implementation of infrastructure projects, identification and pilot testing of their impacts are necessary, and they have been duly taken care of and incorporated in this project. “Outputs under the project are very important and useful for infrastructure-led economic recovery g in the post-Covid 19 era”, he added.

“Various outputs prepared under the project such as country-specific policy recommendations are vital to achieve inclusive growth in the BBIN subregion,” stated Sutapa Choudhury, Deputy Head, Indo-Pacific Regional Department, India and Indian Ocean Directorate, Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, United Kingdom. “The FCDO is committed to extend support to development projects in the subregion in future,” she added.

In his keynote address, Gopal Krishna, Former Shipping Secretary of India, underlined that “As we are much aware that BBIN subregion is least integrated, there is an imperative of addressing its multimodal connectivity needs and associated implementation challenges in a holistic manner. It is important to acknowledge sensitive characteristics of BBIN countries during policy advocacy. Hence, political economy understanding is vital to foster connectivity in the BBIN subregion.”

According to Neelima Akhter, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, Government of Bangladesh, “At present more than 80 per cent transport burden falls on the road transport and there is a need to shift this to other modes of transportation in Bangladesh. This can help reducing trade and transportation costs.”

Highlighting Bhutan’s focus on enabling alternative transportation modes with climate resilience features, Pushpa Chhetri, Director, Bodhi Media & Communications Institute, remarked that “Transformation is the new Mantra in Bhutan, and the country has taken a number of initiatives towards this. There should be more emphasis on Climate-resilient infrastructure for better connectivity.”

In agreement with other experts, Rabi Shanker Sainju, Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Industry, Commerce & Supplies, Government of Nepal, opined that since seamless movement of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles is becoming a necessity for this subregion to grow, multimodal connectivity could be very useful.

Sanjeev Gupta, Member (Planning & Development), Land Ports Authority of India, in his presentation, mentioned that the government is presently exploring ways and means to connect operational and planned Integrated Check Posts to different modes of transportation, particularly railways and waterways.

According to Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh while the project findings would contribute to increased awareness about the need for deeper and multimodal connectivity in the BBIN subregion, they have stimulated a better-informed political economy discourse in this regard.

Several political economy issues and challenges were highlighted in the presentation made by Indranil Bose, Consultant, CUTS International. “There is urgent need for paying required attention to issues like gender dimensions and socio-economic impacts of success of infrastructure projects in the subregion,” he observed.

Bhimlal Suberi, Former Chief, Policy and Planning Division, Ministry of Information and Communication, Royal Government of Bhutan remarked that several notable achievements have been made in Bhutan for facilitating connectivity. One such important development is the rail link between Kokrajhar in India and Gelephu in Bhutan, which will be operational in 2026.

“The benefits of multimodal connectivity should not just be limited to access to the market, trade creation, and lowering of transportation costs. They should extend to improved education access and tourism. However, several interventions are required to implement a sustainable multimodal transportation network,” remarked Riya Sinha, Associate Fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New Delhi.

Apekshya Shah, Senior Fellow, Nepal Economic Forum, argued that the manufacturing sector in India and Bangladesh is being developed in a huge way and therefore smaller economies, like Nepal, have a better chance to get involved in regional and global value chains and connectivity infrastructure should pave the way for that.

According to Pritam Banerjee, Professor and Head, Centre for WTO Studies, New Delhi, while moderating a session on the emerging investment opportunities in the field of multimodal connectivity in the BBIN subregion, “There are various initiatives undertaken by different agencies towards subregional integration. However, there is a need for synchronisation of all these initiatives for improved cross border connectivity and cooperation in the BBIN subregion.”

Appraising the participants Japan International Cooperation Agency’s work in the transport sector in this subregion, Taniguchi Hajime, Senior Representative, JICA, stated that their focus is on projects in northeast India, which can possibly generate significant positive impacts in this subregion

According to Mikiko Tanaka, Head, Subregional Office for South and South West Asia, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “There is a need to work on facilitating the conversation flow between different organisations, keeping in mind their multi-layered characteristics at sub-national, both national and regional level. Additionally, integrating digital solutions in physical infrastructure can play a critical role in facilitating trade at a lesser cost.”

Highlighting the need for bilateral cooperation between India and Bangladesh, Soumya Chattopadhyay, Senior Program Officer, South Asia Department, Asian Development Bank, India Resident Mission, stated that India’s northeast will benefit more if its consignments are allowed to use Chittagong and Mongla Ports in Bangladesh as against Kolkata or Haldia Ports in India as they are more than 1,500 kilometres away.

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