Multi-modal connectivity imperative for BBIN to beat post-Covid economic woes: Think tank

Economics Times, July 08, 2020

Extensive multi-modal connectivity is imperative to beat Covid-induced economic vulnerabilities in the critical sub-region of South Asia — Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal.

“The Covid-induced supply side shocks can fast spills over to the demand side resulting in large-scale unemployment and associated developmental challenges. Eastern South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal are particularly vulnerable as they are yet to experience the peak of the pandemic,” said Pradeep Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International, a global public policy think- and action-tank promoting consumer welfare through trade, regulations and governance.

“The need of the hour is large-scale job creation and infrastructure is one such sector where much more focus is required. The present state of connectivity in the BBIN sub-region and the future need of its multi-modal connectivity are to be looked at in this context.”

He was speaking at the inaugural session of a series of webinars by the CUTS International to be held in this month on ‘creating an enabling political economy discourse for multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region”. More than 150 participants from different parts of the region took part in it.

Reminding the audience that ‘connectivity’ in the BBIN sub-region has gained significant political momentum in recent years, he up-fronted that “irrespective of legitimate concerns regarding the protocols for the regulations of the movements of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles, the singing of the BBIN Motor Vehicles Agreement in 2015 is instrumental in shaping a consensus for creating an enabling environment for seamless connectivity”.

Presenting his views on the occasion, Duncan Overfield, Deputy Head of Asia Regional Team of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, said that “Trade and connectivity can help reducing poverty and ensure stability. The BBIN group of countries can gain substantially from infrastructure connectivity initiatives. For that to happen, long-term and deep engagements are required based on relationships and trust leading to mutual benefits.”

“In a post-Covid world, connectivity needs to be looked at much more holistically, not just in respect to physical infrastructure. Bio-security should become an integral part of cross-border trade. Going forward, ‘safe trade’ initiatives should be undertaken so as to balance economic and health needs of grassroots stakeholders associated with cross-border trade.”

Kuancheng Huang, Senior Transport Specialist of the Asian Development Bank who was also part of webinar, noted, “Greater and high quality connectivity among the economies is a pre-condition for ADB’s operational priorities such as reducing poverty, enhancing gender equality. With a right emphasis on connectivity, we expect the BBIN group of countries to grow further to improve the quality of life.”

“As part of ADB’s South Asian Subregional Economic Cooperation initiative, trade and transport infrastructure are being developed in all these countries to enable them to do trade in a more cost-effective manner. The geographical location will help them accessing global value chains in an effective and efficient manner,” he added.

Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director of CUTS International, made a presentation on the current landscape and possible future of multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region.

He highlighted why there is greater scope for land-locked countries like Nepal and Bhutan to increase their access to sea by use of as well as integrating with existing and developing inter-modal and multi-modal infrastructure between India and Bangladesh, among others.

In this context, he underlined the importance of the India-Bangladesh Coastal Shipping Agreement and their Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade. Taking the example of Jogighopa multi-modal logistics park, he argued that they should be developed in a manner to facilitate the freight movements in both economical and environment-friendly manner.

He added that innovative initiatives with optimal regulations including large-scale digitisation of the means of connectivity should be given priority. As an example, he argued for the creation of an elevated corridor over the Tetulia Upazila of Bangladesh linking North Dinajpur and Jaipaiguri districts of West Bengal, which can also act as a feeder road of the Asian Highway Network.

Other than reducing travel distance by about 85 kilometres, this four kilometres long proposed corridor will act as an alternate to the Siliguri ‘Chicken’s Neck’ Corridor linking mainland India with its Northeast part. The Northeast India will become more secure in respect to traditional as well as non-traditional aspects of security. A surface corridor – in Tinbigha area of the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal – linking one part of Bangladesh with another via India already exists.

The webinar underlined the need for advocating for an optimal set of regulations to further reduce the time and cost of doing cross-border trade. Secondly, it was highlighted that connectivity should not just be looked at in respect to physical infrastructure but in a more holistic manner by taking into account flanking measures to address non-tariff barriers on the ground.

It was also argued that they have to be taken into account while understanding ground realities encompassing political economy factors, particularly those related to possible job losses due to the introduction of innovative measures such as off-border customs clearance.

This webinar was organised as part of a project on “multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region” supported under the Asia Regional Trade and Connectivity Programme of UK’s Department for International Development. Drawing expertise from the Transport Division of the Asian Development Bank being a ‘knowledge partner’, it will be implemented by CUTS International in partnership with Unnayan Shamannay, Bangladesh, Bhutan Media and Communications Institute and Nepal Economic Forum.

Among other objectives, the project will identify investment opportunities for fostering multi-modal connectivity developments in the BBIN sub-region. It will also explore how existing and future connectivity initiatives can be better leveraged to strengthen transport and trade linkages between South and Southeast Asia, which is essential for creating new hubs for global value chains.

The next webinar will be held on July 14 where speakers from this region and multilateral bodies will speak on the importance of drawing lessons from successful connectivity initiatives in other regions of Asia and the Pacific, and how they can be adapted to the BBIN sub-region.

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